How did the town of Cateura, Paraguay get an internationally known youth orchestra? It sits on the largest landfill in the country. Its citizens pick through the trash to find things to recycle and sell. It’s almost as if both the contents of the landfill and the people who live on it are discards, out of sight and out of mind for most of the rest of the country.
The story begins with Luis Szarán, since 1990 the conductor of the Symphonic Orchestra of Asunción. He grew up poor, the eighth child of Paraguayan farmers. He had musical talent. A professional musician, José Luis Miranda, discovered him, taught him, and enabled him to study music in Europe.
The story of a poor child being discovered, rescued from poverty, and achieving success and acclaim is quite common. Frequently these people search for ways to give back to the community. At that point, the stories cease to be common and become unique.
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Sonidos de la Terra (Sounds of the Earth)
In 2002, Szarán began a project he called Sonidos de la Terra to bring free music education to poor children. Cateura is only one town among several where Szarán became active. He had five violins, but 50 children expressed interest in learning to play them. One of his associates, Favio Chávez, noticed a craftsman named Colá among the trash pickers. He provided a violin to see if Colá could make something similar.
Colá took careful measurements and fashioned a copy from aluminum cans and other scrap. It looked sort of like a violin. Was it a usable instrument, or just a violin-shaped object? A professional violinist tested it and found it playable and functional. Colá also made a soprano saxophone and a flute from a water pipe, spoons, buttons, and assorted other junk, as well as a whole family of stringed instruments.
By the way, Colá knew nothing of music before he met Chávez. He had never heard of Mozart. I would imagine that most of what he made eventually left Cateura for sale elsewhere. The instruments stayed nearby, and he got to see how much they meant to the children who learned to play them.
The children who received the instruments and learned to play them loved them. Only after several children had recycled instruments did Szarán get the idea of forming some kind of ensemble. He has since taken it on a European tour. He received the Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2005. The video is a preview of a feature length film scheduled for release in 2014.
Implications for music education in the US
Will any of these children become professional musicians? It really doesn’t matter. Will they become good citizens, making some kind of contribution to Paraguayan society? Almost certainly. That’s the whole point.
Music will not change harsh living conditions. It won’t cure health care issues or banish hunger. But it certainly will give the participants and the surrounding community the means to avoid being crushed and victimized by their circumstances.
The poorest and most deprived children in the US might not live on a garbage dump, but they certainly know hopelessness, despair, and the feeling of being discarded by the rest of society.
I don’t need to argue that music education can lift them up as it has the children of Cateura. That fact has been demonstrated many times, in many ways, and in many poor neighborhoods. The catalyst doesn’t even have to be music. It can be dancing. It can be art. It can be chess.
The fact is that the world of poverty and lack is not really significantly different from the world of material comfort and affluence. One has more money, but people living in both partake of the same culture. Bridges exist to carry people from one world to the other. Music is one of them.
It’s hopeless people who join gangs, who get caught up in the culture of drugs and alcohol, who commit acts of vandalism. Hopelessness is certainly not limited to poor neighborhoods, but it’s in poor neighborhoods where music has the greatest power to combat hopelessness.
Will the story of the recycled orchestra inspire Americans to warm and fuzzy feelings for a while? Or will it instead inspire a number of Americans to use whatever resources and skills they have to take the message of hope to where it is needed most?
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Luis Szarán biography
Skoll Foundation page on Luis Szarán