Culver City Observer -

Can Your Dreams Lie in Garbage?


September 22, 2016

Garbage is nothing, right? No value, by definition. Wrong!

Let your imagination go swimming: What if garbage had the power to inspire dreams? Garbage is worthless, meaningless. Ah, but we're spoiled, and perhaps have limits to our creativity. Can beauty be cultured to emerge?

Favio Chavez saw unlimited possibilities in the garbage of Cateura, a small town in Paraguay next to one of the largest landfills in South America. Cateura's a poor place; people mainly live as gancheros; by scavenging garbage for whatever they can sell.

Favio, an engineer working in landfill sites ten years ago, dreamed up the possibility of teaching music to Cateura's children. He changed his work, organized the students, but where would he get the instruments?


Favio asked people to search the landfill for anything they could use to make instruments. Nicolas Cola, a former carpenter, started modelling a tin can on a violin. He measured the instrument, then fastidiously crafted copycat instruments from whatever he could find.

Cola, one of the garbage-pickers, made a drum out of an X-ray He made a cello out of an oil drum and wooden spoons, using a size 12 heel from a woman's shoe. To the children of Cateura, these instruments-from-garbage were unparalleled and precious.

What happened next became a movie, "Landfill Harmonic" (catchy title). The story's good, and the movie's encouraging. Favio and the young orchestra players performed after a preview at the Museum of Tolerance.

You see beautiful sunrises over garbage, masterfully shot by Neil Barrett.

Favio describes the challenge: "How to convert our small orchestra of recycled instruments into a symphony orchestra." Favio told the children, "Play without fear. Don't be afraid to play."

There are some surprises in the orchestra's story, which I'll come back to. But I'd like to discuss a few other themes this movie makes you think about.

If these poor children can be this creative out of recycled garbage, what's stopping the rest of us?

I've been thinking of Agnès Varda's intriguing movie "Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse" (English title, "The Gleaners and I"). While filming the movie with a hand-held camera, Varga shows herself also in the movie, learning to do what the film's subjects do: get useful things from garbage. It was an eye-opener to see what people can glean from actual garbage.

In "Les Gleaners," Varda follows different gleaners who hunt for food and whatever, including country and urban people, some who get all their food that way, and artists working with recycled materials. Agnès herself begins to glean, treasuring discarded potatoes she finds, including some she keeps that are heart-shaped.

"What others see as "a cluster of junk," Louis Pons sees as "a cluster of possibilities". This French collage artist explains his artistic process in Varda's film; he believes the purpose of art is to "tidy up one's inner and exterior worlds."

"Les Gleaners," won awards worldwide; it was voted the eighth best documentary film of all time (2014 Sight and Sound poll).

Varda acknowledged that she herself is a gleaner.

“I'm not poor, I have enough to eat,” she said.

Varda talks about “another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.”

Is this a creative thing we all do, without realizing it? Or can we develop it, grow it?

Favio Chavez drastically changed the lives of so many people in "Landfill Harmonic". One young girl said, "Without music, my life would be meaningless."

I kept wondering what these people's lives would be like if they had real instruments.

"Life sends us garbage; we give back music," someone says in the film

They don't talk much about the toxic-ness. It's mentioned, briefly. Alejandra Amarilla, the executive producer who first saw the story's value, acknowledges: " We were also sensitive to the situation of the characters in the film and felt we didn’t need to dwell in certain aspects of their lives. "

As an contemporary American, I thought of the toxic aspects of Cateura. I worry for the children in the orchestra, for their families. After each stunning trip, these kids go back to their town on-the-landfill. I wonder how you're going to keep them down on the farm, after they've seen the world. It will be interesting in future time: Will they keep going back to live by the landfill? Will anyone realize the dangers of where they live and clean it up/ get it cleaned up? Will these ultra-well-behaved kids be marred by the usual celebrity traps?

"We wanted to focus on their transformation and their growth, which occurred as we were filming," says Amarilla.

You might not think there'd be a lot to see in this story, yet for the young people from Cateura, there are trips to Brazil and Denver. and having the chance to see the ocean for the first time.

I asked Favio Chavez what it feels like, seeing his young orchestra, with their recycled instruments, travelling around the world and performing in places they couldn't imagine ever getting to. His answer was humble; he talked only of the hard-working young people, and the chance for them to see what exists. One could only imagine his profound sense of accomplishment, and pride.

"Culture is a basic need. Music can change lives, even when we live in terrible conditions. We must have hope," Favio says in the movie.

"Oftentimes, the solutions to problems are not technical problems," he adds. "The environment and our surroundings determine the quality of our life."

Surprises? One year after the orchestra became known, they were performing "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" at a world summit in Rio de Janeiro. That itself became a story: What would they wear? How would they travel? Favio bought the children their first suitcases. And their blue shirts!

One young woman in the orchestra came to love thrash metal music she learned from her father. She adored Megadeth. She bravely posted a photo on Megadeth's Facebook page. Lo, the power of Facebook! That led to Megadeth's David Ellefson travelling all the way to Cateura to meet the orchestra, and ultimately, to the astonishing chance for the orchestra to play on a stage with Megadeth.

Incongruently, the orchestra plays classical music, while Megadeth plays its metal. Ellefson: "It's two different genres, totally, but the heart is the same"

We all need some inspiration for dreaming.

This story's remarkable, and inspiring.


©Carole Bell 2016 Carole Bell is a writer interested in everything.

You can write to her at:


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2021