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Tunes from the Trash

How students in Paraguay make music from garbage

GINA SILVA

Celeste Ortiz, 11, plays a violin made from recycled materials.

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN®

You might find an old can, a dirty fork, and a scrap of wood at the dump. Or you might find them on Estrella Melgarejo’s viola. The 20-year-old plays an instrument made from trash. 

Estrella lives in the South American country of Paraguay. She’s one of 60 young people in a group called the Recycled Orchestra. All of the orchestra’s instruments are made of materials found in a nearby landfill.

You might find an old can and a dirty fork at the dump. Or you might find these things on Estrella Melgarejo’s viola. The 20-year-old plays an instrument made from trash. 

Estrella lives in Paraguay. It’s a country in South America. She’s one of 60 young people in a group called the Recycled Orchestra. All of the group’s instruments are made of garbage. The materials were found in a nearby landfill.

Bright Idea

Favio Chávez is an engineer and a guitar player. He first thought up the Recycled Orchestra in 2011. At the time, he was working on a recycling program in a region of Paraguay called Cateura.

Cateura is home to Paraguay’s largest landfill. About 1,500 tons of garbage are dumped there each day. Chávez saw all that trash and wondered: Could he turn it into musical instruments for local students? 

A carpenter named Nicolás Gómez volunteered to help him try. They searched the landfill for materials. “We try to find items that can imitate classical instruments,” says Chávez.

Favio Chávez is an engineer and a guitar player. He first thought up the Recycled Orchestra in 2011. He was working on a recycling program at the time. It was in a region of Paraguay called Cateura.

Cateura is home to Paraguay’s largest landfill. About 1,500 tons of garbage are dumped there each day. Chávez saw all that trash and had an idea. Could he turn it into musical instruments for local students? 

A carpenter named Nicolás Gómez agreed to help him try. They searched the landfill for materials. “We try to find items that can imitate classical instruments,” says Chávez.

COURTESY OF LANDFILL HARMONIC MOVIE

An old fork holds the violin strings in place.

Stringed instruments—like Estrella’s viola—need a hollow body, says Chávez. When sound waves bounce around this empty space, they get louder (see Making Waves). The men realized that metal cans or barrels could do the trick.

Chávez and Gómez experimented with different materials to see what worked best. They’ve found they can build wind instruments, like trumpets and saxophones, out of discarded plumbing pipes. They can use bottle caps for keys. To make the skin of a drum, Gómez has used old X-ray film. Hitting the film makes it vibrate, or shake, to produce sound.

Estrella’s viola is a stringed instrument. It needed a hollow body, says Chávez. Sound waves get louder when they bounce around this empty space (see Making Waves). The men realized that metal cans or barrels could do the trick.

Chávez and Gómez tested different materials to see what worked best. They gathered discarded plumbing pipes. They used those to build instruments like trumpets and saxophones. Bottle caps worked well for keys. Gómez has even used an old X-ray film to make the skin of a drum. Hitting the film makes it vibrate, or shake, to produce sound.

Tuned Up

The Recycled Orchestra started with a few dozen students from the Cateura area. Since word spread about the group, more young people have joined. The group has been invited to play concerts around the world. 

Older students teach younger kids how to play and repair the instruments. “We do experiments every day to make new instruments or improve the ones we have,” says Chávez.

Playing a recycled instrument takes a lot of work. But the experience is rewarding, says Estrella. “Being part of the orchestra has been really extraordinary for me.”

The Recycled Orchestra started with a few dozen students from the Cateura area. Then word started to spread. Soon more young people joined the group. The musicians have been invited to play concerts around the world. 

Older students teach younger kids how to play and repair the instruments. “We do experiments every day to make new instruments or improve the ones we have,” says Chávez.

Playing a recycled instrument takes a lot of work. But the experience is rewarding, says Estrella. “Being part of the orchestra has been really extraordinary for me,” she says.

COURTESY OF LANDFILL HARMONIC MOVIE

Nicolás Gómez (left) and Favio Chávez find instrument parts in a local landfill.

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