Music from the Trash Heap

A youth orchestra uses recycled instruments to make beautiful music


If any town could use a dose of beauty, it is Cateura (pronounced kah-tay-OOH-ruh). Plastic bags and other trash blow past like tumbleweeds. There are no parks and few places to play. Polluted streams seep between shabby buildings. Money is rarer than clean water.

This community of 25,000 grew around the landfill for Asunción (ah-suhn-SYOHN), the capital city of Paraguay (pah-ruh-GWY). Some 1.5 tons of garbage are dumped here daily. And each day, hundreds of gancheros—recyclers—climb mountains of garbage to hunt for junk that might bring a few pennies.

In Cateura, though, there are sounds besides the growl of garbage trucks and bulldozers. Notes from a cello, a violin, and a saxophone rise from the school courtyard, playing strains of the Pink Panther theme. Some children of gancheros are practicing for the next concert by the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments. Their dedication and determination—expressed on unique, inventive, improvised instruments built from scavenged scraps—are inspiring hope in this hard-luck town, and now around the world.

Paint Tins to Violins

The program grew from the musical heart of Favio Chávez. Chávez, an environmental technician, saw how few creative outlets existed for Cateura's youth. He began to offer music lessons in his spare time to help keep kids out of trouble. However, there were no instruments for them to take home and practice.

Even if there had been manufactured instruments available, Chávez realized they may have caused other problems, considering the town's poverty. “A violin is worth more than a recycler’s house,” Chávez told The Guardian, a British newspaper. “We couldn’t give a child a formal instrument as it would have put him in a difficult position. The family may have looked to sell or trade it.”

Chávez devised an ingenious answer, assisted by the unique talents of Nicolás “Cola” Gómez. Gómez, a recycler and craftsman, studied and took measurements of the different instruments. He then scrounged scraps from the landfill and went to work.

He and Chávez transformed junk into musical instruments. A recycled oil drum became the body for a cello; a pair of round, metal dessert cans a guitar. A pipe was fashioned as a flute, and a steel rain gutter reshaped into a soprano saxophone, with door keys and coins welded on as keys. Gómez flattened and trimmed paint tins to make bodies for violins, carving wood scraps into fingerboards, bridges, and scrolls. An X-ray plate took on new life as the surface of a drum.

Their creations were not as elegant as formal instruments, but in the hands of eager young performers they have made beautiful music. “I don’t care that my violin is made out of recycled parts,” 14-year-old Ada Rios told a reporter. “To me, it’s a treasure.”

More Than Music

Today, some 70 children and teens take part in the music program in Cateura, and Chávez directs an orchestra of about 30 youth. In recent years, they and their instruments have gained international attention. They have performed in Europe and North America, as well as other countries in South America.

The goal of the program is about more than educating young musicians, according to Chávez. It helps youth develop an appreciation for beauty, the confidence to create art, as well as habits and skills that will serve them throughout their lives. “It allows them to envision a different future for themselves,” he says.

Think About

String Instrument Parts

Pegs These can be turned to tune the strings.
Strings The violinist plays notes by picking the strings or drawing a bow across them; the strings may be steel or synthetic.
Bridge This piece lifts strings away from the fingerboard and body so they can vibrate freely.
Body The hollow structure vibrates with the strings. It enriches and amplifies the sound.
F-holes These holes allow the body to vibrate.
Scroll This carved piece protects the violin’s tail end.

The handmade recycled instruments played by members of the Cateura orchestra resemble formal models in appearance. However, the different materials give them somewhat different sounds. For example, a violin made from wood will have a richer, darker tone. In contrast, a note from a violin crafted from metal will have a brighter, tinny quality.

Think about the different materials used to make musical instruments. Why aren’t trumpets made of plastic, guitars molded from clay, or cellos strung with yarn?


Learn More

Paraguay is a landlocked country in central South America, bordered by Argentina to the south and southwest, Brazil to the east and northeast, and Bolivia to the northwest.

Poverty in Paraguay

Paraguay is located in the belly of South America, landlocked by Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. About the size of California, it is home to more than 6.8 million people. Most Paraguayans speak both Spanish and Guaraní (GWAR-uh-nee), the language of its indigenous people.

Paraguay is growing quickly in terms of population and wealth. However, poverty remains a crushing problem. About one-third of Paraguayans live in poverty, according to the World Bank. (In the United States, that figure is about 16 percent.) Farming is the country’s main economic activity, but more than 75 percent of farmland is controlled by 1 percent of the population. The country’s leaders offer few anti-poverty programs or public services for its poorest citizens.

The Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments demonstrates the hope, passion, and determination inspired by the arts, especially among communities with few resources. Says the group’s conductor, Favio Chávez: “People realize we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people, either.”

Think about the following:

  • What habits and skills do the arts—music, theater, visual arts, for example—help people develop?
  • What are ways the performing arts can contribute to a sense of community?

For the Educator

In the video, violinist Maria de los Angeles Rodriguez says: “There is a huge difference between a normal violin that sounds beautiful and this [recycled] one, which might sound irritating, but everything it symbolizes is more important.” Ask students to think about and discuss what the recycled violin might symbolize for Maria.

Many people are inspired by stories about those who overcome poverty and other difficulties to reach a goal. Ask your students to think of examples from literature and film. Discuss why this theme may be compelling.

Resources to Explore

Jermyn, Leslie and Yong Jui Lin. (2011). Paraguay (Cultures of the World series). New York: Marshall Cavendish.

Web sites:

Describes and explains Paraguay’s economy

Information about the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments and news about an upcoming documentary; includes photos and video clips

Web article discusses ways arts education can benefit low-income students



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Gilbert, Jonathan. (April 26, 2013). «Paraguayan landfill orchestra makes sweet music from rubbish.» The Guardian. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/26/paraguayan-landfill-orchestra-music

Hirasuna, Delphine. (December 14, 2012). «Recycling the Sound of Music.» @issue:. Web. http://www.atissuejournal.com/2012/12/14/recycling-the-sound-of-music/

Romero, Simon. (April 24, 2013). «Boom Times in Paraguay Leave Many Behind.» The New York Times. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/americas/boom-times-in-paraguay-leave-many-behind.html?pagewanted=all

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