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ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay - To many, old cans and pots, rusty drums and other household items are garbage. But to some of the youngsters from Cateura, the main garbage dump in the city of Asunción, it’s not trash.
For the kids who participate in Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth) project, they transform what others have discarded into the instruments used in their well-known orchestra.
Sonidos de la Tierra, established in 2005 by local musician Luis Szarán, uses the sweet sounds of music to bring together kids from more than 140 communities surrounding the nation’s capital.
And one of these communities is Cateura, which receives 800 tons of household garbage daily, plus 200 more from the city cleaning program. Residents in this poverty stricken town are called “gancheros,” meaning people who make a living picking up and recycling trash.
But in the case of Sonidos de la Tierra, it means turning garbage into musical instruments.
“Today, some 50 kids from the dump take part in the artistic activities,” said Favio Chávez, an environmental engineer and coordinator of Sonidos de la Tierra. “We have them divided into musicians, and those qualified to be luthiers.”
Most of the program’s musicians are the children of gancheros, who collect and recycle trash found on the street. “Time made us realize this project not only deals with music, but also fulfills a social function, because most of them don’t have birth certificates,” Chávez added.
Sonidos de la Tierra in Cateura had to clear several hurdles during the project’s infancy. First, it had to overcome society’s negative perception of gancheros. Secondly, Chávez needed to earn the parents’ trust. Finally, the children and youths who wanted to be a part of Sonidos de la Tierra had to be committed to attending – and excelling in – school.
“This process was mainly based on understanding the parents and the family structure in every home,” Chávez said. “Once we got their trust, the second phase was getting a compromise. For instance, if a child wants to learn how to play the violin, he needs to get good marks at school.”
“This is a great idea because it proves that with good effort, you can achieve beautiful things… that you can get something beautiful, like our instruments and the music we play, out of something ugly,” said Alberto Arevalos, a 20-year-old luthier who joined the program at the age of 17. “This proves that collecting garbage is a decent job.”
Alberto and other youths, like 17-year-old Diego Rojas, who were former gancheros, have since been hired as luthiers in a repair shop inside a local youth shelter “Hogar Don Bosco Roga,” which is in an Asunción bus terminal about ten kilometers from Cateura.
“My dream is opening my own luthiers repair shop, and I am going to achieve it,” said Arevalos, who recently received a scholarship that will take him to Uruguay so he can become more educated in the field.
Empty sweet potato cans, X-ray sheets, soda drink caps, electrode drums or old pots are treated as treasure in the small repair shop, where they are transformed into violins, guitars, bass guitars, clarinets and percussion drums and sold. The shop also produces wooden instruments to keep up with the demand for its products.
An Orchestra is born
“At first, we taught them how to make their own instruments, because there were more children than instruments,” Chávez said. “This was also a way of keeping them busy by doing something useful. But after some time, they improved their sound and tuning abilities, until they assembled an orchestra.”
The orchestra became so good it went on tour with director Luis Szarán, playing its sweet sounds in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and France in 2006.
The audiences were so impressed with what they heard from the children, they asked them for their instruments upon the tour’s completion.
“They were so shocked that the kids ended up giving their instruments after every tour. [Cuban folk singer] Silvio Rodríguez has one of these tin guitars, as well as former U.S President Jimmy Carter,” Chávez said. “That gives you an idea of how valuable they are.”
Letizia Ineichen, a music teacher, said the concerts showed the potential for development that exists when kids from different social classes are provided a strong support system.
“A real integration through music,” Ineichen said from Switzerland.
She worked in Paraguay from January to June this year as a Sonidos de la Tierra volunteer instructor.
“Every single day I remember the things I lived as a volunteer,” she said. “I have deep memories of an extraordinary time. What impressed me most was the attention, the motivation, the joy, as well as the insatiable hunger for practicing and being together through music.”