Paraguayan Youth Band Turns Trash Into Treasure
From the trash heap to the concert hall with Landfill Harmonic
The first time documentarian Brad Allgood tried to play an instrument from la Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura, it proved a unique challenge. "It almost sounded like an electric violin," he said. "It had a metallic quality to it, rather than the warmth of a wooden instrument."
That's because there isn't another violin quite like the ones brandished by la Orquesta, just as there isn't another orchestra like the one he recently documented in his film, Landfill Harmonic. The musicians profiled look like any school band: students in white shirts, black pants and skirts, nervously clutching their instruments. The difference is that these kids were never supposed to have an education – never mind become part of a musical collective that has toured the world and performed before international dignitaries and icons of heavy metal. These are children who grew up on a literal garbage pile, who overcame the odds to become classically trained musicians. Said Allgood: "They're really, really good, and they're literally playing on pieces of metal and pallet."
In life, there's the bottom of the heap, and then there's Cateura. Located just outside of Paraguay's capital city, Asunción, the town is the site of the nation's largest landfill. For many of its inhabitants, however, the refuse serves as resource. They salvage what recyclable scrap they can to resell elsewhere.
But for Nicolas "Cola" Gomez, the site's a treasure trove – a destination he returns to often to look for scraps and offcasts that he can forge into new instruments. Two sweet potato cans welded together make a guitar body. Bottle caps and buttons get repurposed into keys on a saxophone. A bent fork finds new life as the tailpiece to a viola.
"Picking up one violin is very much like picking up any other violin," said Allgood. "But with these instruments, each is unique, each has its own tuning."
Allgood saw similar types of scavenging when he was part of the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, which he described as "very artisanal. … Trucks would drive around, collecting scrap metal, whereas we have the public institutions. We have a green bin and a blue bin, and we set it on the streets and it disappears." That's part of the reason that his film and the orchestra have connected so strongly in the United States and Europe, where city services make trash somewhat magically disappear into the night. In Cateura, he said, "People are actually living in the garbage and surviving off it, so that dichotomy really strikes audiences in developed countries as almost appalling."
The orchestra and film have often toured together, including performances at SXSW 2015. Allgood said "South By is a madhouse, but in such a great way, There's so much creativity and so many creative people there. For the kids, it was a great experience. I think it was a perfect fit." Now the film returns to SXSWedu 2017 for a very different audience. "That's our long-term goal with the film," said Allgood. "We want to reach young audiences, and people who are interested in music, and music educators."
Landfill HarmonicMon., March 6, 1:30pm, ACC Room 19AB
More Film HighlightsNight School: Three adults struggle to complete their long-deferred high school education in the city with America's lowest graduation rate. Tue., March 7, 4pm, ACC Room 19AB
Starving the Beast: How higher education has been under attack for the last 35 years. Wed., March 8, 11am, ACC Room 19AB
Tower: Award-winning documentary about the infamous UT Tower shooting, the first school massacre in U.S. history. Wed., March 8, 7pm, Stateside Theatre