One man’s trash is a musical community’s treasure

“’Classically trained musicians think about perfection in everything, but, at the end, the real meaning of music is the effort you put behind it.’”

By Eleanor Hyun

What do a fork, a wooden artist’s palette, and a shoe brush all have in common?

Well, at first glance, nothing.

However, on November 22, audience members were forced to rethink that question while listening to the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura at DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theatre. The ensemble, a youth orchestra from the small village of Cateura in Paraguay, uses the aforementioned items, along with bottle caps, old coins, and water pipes, to make its musical instruments.

Cateura is home to a large landfill, which yields all of the materials used to make the orchestra’s instruments. Without the funds to buy professionally manufactured instruments, music director Favio Chávez saw the potential to use the landfill items to create a youth orchestra. At the performance, musicians ranging in age from eight to 21 years old played cellos with oilcan bodies, saxophones with bottle cap keys, and violins made of pizza trays.

The orchestra, which has achieved global fame in recent years, has been featured on 60 Minutes and is the subject of a new documentary, Landfill Harmonic. The ensemble has also traveled worldwide, performing in various countries and even going on tour with the heavy-metal group Metallica.

The ensemble’s pre-Thanksgiving performance was the finale of Chicago’s 10th annual Latino Music Festival, which is run each year by the International Latino Cultural Center. The festival was founded by Chicago-based musicians Elbio Rodríguez Barilari, Gustavo Leone, and Pepe Vargas. It opened in early September and featured performances in venues throughout the Chicago area, including the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts.

While the Recycled Instruments Orchestra is by no means a professional ensemble, the group held the audience’s attention with its remarkable character, enthusiasm, and drive to create music.

“If you want to hear an orchestra that sounds perfect, don’t listen to us,” Chávez said to audience members at the concert. “But if you want to hear an orchestra that changes lives, then choose us.”

For many members of the orchestra, playing music is an alternative to joining gangs. Chávez also remarked that because the orchestra is such a life changing experience for its participants, its roster is constantly cycling to give the most children the opportunity to play in the ensemble.

A number of the orchestra members had never left Paraguay before, and coming to Chicago for this performance marked the first time they had traveled on an airplane or registered for a passport.

The repertoire varied widely, featuring classical music staples like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, as well as less traditional selections like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” During the second half of the concert, the Recycled Instruments Orchestra was joined by eight members of the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, an orchestra devoted to making classical music more accessible to modern audiences. Together, they played pieces from countries where the Recycled Instruments Orchestra has traveled, such as Norway and Israel.

“We are learning from them,” said Mina Zikri, the music director of the Oistrakh Symphony and one of the violinists who joined the Recycled Instruments in performance. “Classically trained musicians think about perfection in everything, but, at the end, the real meaning of music is the effort you put behind it.”

Zikri’s words rang true at the performance, which was not only a concert but also the formal award ceremony for the Gloria Lifetime Achievement award. According to the International Latino Cultural Center’s website, the award is given out annually to “recognize individuals and institutions that have significantly contributed to the development of the Latino community, both in Chicago and across the globe.”

This year’s winner was legendary jazz pianist Danilo Pérez. Born in Panama, Pérez went on to found the Panama Jazz Festival and currently serves as the Artistic Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston, in addition to teaching at the New England Conservatory. He also started a foundation that offers educational opportunities to disadvantaged Panamanian youth.  

“Music erases all the differences we have. Music is the antidote to violence in the world,” Pérez said while accepting his award. He turned and pointed to the members of the Recycled Instruments Orchestra, who shared the stage with him as he spoke. “How do we take a kid away from a gun?” he asked. “Give him a violin, give him a piano.”  The orchestra members, despite not understanding English, seemed to understand his message, and many smiled knowingly.

“These kids come from a place where they fight to survive,” Zikri said in a pre-concert interview. “You could send them portable hospitals, you could send them food, you could them send clothes. But what you can do to make people feel like real humans is that you can give them music. Music is what a human being needs to feel like a human being.”

“There are people who are destroying everything,” he said, referring to the recent tragedy in Paris. “And then there are people who are making something out of nothing.”