“My name is Juan Manuel Chavez, better known as Bebi. I’m 19 and I play the cello.”
Chavez is speaking Spanish in the trailer for Landfill Harmonic. He hoists his “cello,” a colorful instrument fashioned out of an oil drum and kitchen accessories salvaged from the Paraguayan landfill he grow up around. He begins to play, and a surprisingly deep, rich tone emanates from the instrument.
Chavez is part of the Recycled Orchestra, a youth orchestra whose members hail from the slum of Catuera, outside Paraguay’s capital, Asunción. Catuera is the city’s dumping ground for trash; its residents workers and their families who scavenge the trash for reusable or recyclable goods. The documentary trailer shows children dwarfed by piles of trash as they walk along the village’s roads. The levels of poverty shown are, frankly, staggering. But there’s a glimmer of hope provided to the slum’s children: A local named “Cola” teamed up with musician Favio Chávez to teach the children music. They couldn’t afford instruments for the kids — and parents worried their children might be robbed were they to carry violins or trumpets around the garbage heap — so they made instruments out of the trash, with beef tenderizers for tuning pegs and water pipes for saxophone bodies.
After years of hard work, the world noticed. The orchestra now travels the world, bringing its recycled instruments with it and making music for the masses.
The Recycled Orchestra of Catuera is one of the musical attractions of the MIMFest, the Musical Instrument Museum’s second annual two-day festival celebrating the world’s music. Musical attractions include Los Angeles party band Ozomatli, virtuoso indie-folk violinist Andrew Bird, bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten, and more.
“For these kids in this town in Paraguay, as one of them says in the movie, ‘to have a violin here is as rare as a flower in the desert,’” says the Musical Instrument Museum Theater’s artistic director Lowell Pickett. “It’s just one of those things that they could only dream about but not even imagine they could ever have the opportunity to do. The magic is when they’re able to have access to something they never thought they’d have.”
Pickett is particularly excited about the recycled orchestra. It highlights the ultimate potential music offers as a transformative experience in people’s lives, he says.
“It’s the magic of music anywhere,” he says. “All that stuff is magnified at a place where opportunities are so limited.”
Another act playing the festival is the Jones Family Singers, a family of God-fearing gospel singers from South Texas.
“It’s like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings meets the Blind Boys of Alabama,” Pickett says.
“Aretha Franklin was once singing gospel music and then transformed it into something secular. The Joneses are still singing gospel messages, but transformed it into something with a more modern sound.”
Other highlights of the festival include Canadian violinist Jaron Freeman-Fox, whom the The Ottawa International Jazz Festival described as having “the chops of a classical virtuoso with the soul of a wild-eyed punk” and the Villalobos Brothers, a Mexican group Pickett describes as a virtuosic blend of “indigenous rhythms with jazz and classical influences and a healthy dash of showmanship.”
The festival offers roughly a dozen bands a day spread over two days. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for teens, $15 for children, and children under 3 years old get in free with an adult.
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Though the festival certainly affirms the museum’s mission, Pickett says the aim of the festival is simple: expose people to a bunch of great music, played by extremely talented instrumentalists.
“It’s music to have fun with,” Pickett says.