Young musicians are living their dreams, thanks to a recycled orchestra

Meetai Films, "Landfill Harmonic"
Landfill Harmonic by Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo

A group of young musicians in Paraguay live in a village formed from a municipal landfill. Its residents used to be known as trash pickers, but today, they’re known for the incredible music they make.

At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about the ensemble’s warmup session when they tune their instruments, until you get a closer look at what exactly they’re playing, reports Vladimir Duthiers of CBS News’ digital network, CBSN.

What looks like a Stradivarius is actually a violin created from a fork, paint can and baking tray. A flute is made up of discarded pipes, keys, coins and caps, and an electric guitar out of a wax tin. 

The instruments are made entirely of trash.

Violins made of landfill trash  Meetai Films, "Landfill Harmonic"

The young musicians from the impoverished country form the recycled orchestra.

“Describe for me what it’s like to play with the orchestra,” Duthiers said.

“A lot of people are dying to play with us. And the truth is it’s a very beautiful thing that has no price,” said one musician.

When we met them recently in New York City, they were more than 4,500 miles from their home in Cateura, a small village built around a landfill on the outskirts of Paraguay’s capital city, Asunción. Garbage provides a livelihood for many of the 2,500 families who live there. They sift through the mounds looking for stuff to sell.

Former environmental technician Favio Chavez came up with the idea to make music in the junkyard. He gives lessons for free to any child looking to escape the misery of poverty. He said music is a basic necessity.

“Because culture is very important, it’s as important as eating,” Chavez said. “Culture is as important as having a home.”

A local carpenter named Don Cola Gomez picks through the trash heap for the raw materials to make the instruments.

Sisters Ada and Noelia Rios were among the music school’s first students, where 70 kids now study music. 

Musicians of the Recycled Orchestra   Meetai Films, "Landfill Harmonic"

“The truth is that at first, people would make fun of us because we didn’t have instruments and now they’ve realized that thanks to the orchestra, us or any other child can change his or her life through music,” Noelia said.

The sisters’ grandmother, Miran, enrolled them in the music lessons. She grew up listening to the Beatles and dreamed of becoming a singer. Now, her granddaughters play John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the United Nations in New York.

Landfill Harmonic by Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo

“Now my main objective and biggest dream as a family is that I am able to become a professional musician and to help children who want to grow in the community,” Ada said.

That dream is coming true, largely thanks to a documentary about the orchestra, called “Landfill Harmonic.” In 2012, the producers posted a teaser on YouTube, which reverberated around the world. 

“We never thought that we would get the response that we had. We were already inspired by this story but this really pushed us and pushed the orchestra even more,” said Alejandra Amarilla, the documentary’s founder and executive producer. 

“We are helping to tell their story to the world and it’s a privilege,” said Juliana Penaranda-Loftus, producer and co-director of the film. 

The orchestra is receiving invitations to perform at music halls across the globe, even playing with the kids’ rock idol Megadeth in the United States.

“What’s been the most surprising thing for you in watching the children over the last six years?” Duthiers asked.

“The most surprising thing I’ve seen in these children is the change in their eyes -- from living in hopelessness to living in hope of a better future,” Chavez said.

“Landfill Harmonic” is currently playing in Los Angeles and several other cities around the world. It will become widely available on Vimeo in November.