I was doing my taxes, trying to maintain my sanity by listening to Solomon Cutner playing the Appassionata on Youtube, when the next piece on the playlist began. More Beethoven — the Ninth Symphony, which is, to me, soul food, in the most literal sense. Since I'm given to occasional grand pronouncements, as soon as the final cadence faded, I wrote a Facebook post: “Everyone should listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, now and then. Maybe it's what ISIS needs.”
Most of the people who commented agreed with my underlying point: the restorative power of Beethoven's masterpiece. One, however, pointed out that the Nazis were also very fond of Beethoven's Ninth, an observation that brought back unwelcome memories of how much Alex, the sociopathic protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, liked the Ninth. My Facebook friend's point was that music is only a powerful force for good if we meet it halfway.
It's that kind of universal power of music that has been tapped by Favio Chávez, the music director of the Landfill Harmonic.
I first became aware of Landfill Harmonic a few years ago, through the teaser for Paraguayan filmaker Alejandra Amarilla's full-length documentary, which got its world premiere on March 18, 2015 in Austin, Texas at the SXSW festival. The original clip, which went viral, opens with scenes of the squalor that is Cateura, a Paraguayan slum built on a dump. Next, the viewer is introduced to some of the young people who play instruments fashioned by Nicolás Gómez, a trash collector who recycles some of the abundant garbage around him into flutes, trumpets, saxophones, strings, guitars, and more, all without any formal training.
Then one of the musicians, 19-year-old Juan Manuel Chávez, plays the prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 far more beautifully than should be possible on an instrument made from an oil can, while the central characters — luthier, conductor, and student musicians — tell us more about themselves and how much the music means to them. I was moved to tears the first time I saw it, and it still affects me deeply.
A longer YouTube post explains that the idea for an orchestra came from Luis Szarán, Favio Chávez's mentor and the founder of Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth), the group created to share the power of music with all of Paraguay, even the poorest residents. The extended video showcases the talents of other members of the group, spotlighting Maria Eugenia Benitez Penayo, a 15-year-old violinist whose makeshift metal instrument goes everywhere with her, and Juan Gerardo Ayalo, an 18-year-old flutist whose playing is accurately described by his mother as “from the soul.”
Accidents of birth
The flutist, in particular, reminds me of a character from Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto. In the novel, a famous opera singer is performing for a private party in a fictional South American nation when terrorists take the rich and powerful partygoers hostage. During the extended negotiations for the captives' release, the diva discovers that one of her captors, an impoverished teenager, is a vocal prodigy, and begins to teach him technique. He is killed when soldiers decide to end the standoff violently. There are many talented people who never get the opportunity to fully develop their gifts, simply because of the cruel accident of where and to whom they are born.
In the original clip, a young girl says that her life “would be worthless without music.” Maria Eugenia mentions that music helps young people to avoid the lure of drugs and alcohol. And yet, Favio Chávez acknowledges that the very real problems of hunger and disease — 1,500 tons of trash arrives in Cateura daily, and the water supply is dangerously polluted — can't be solved with music. The Landfill Harmonic has performed in Europe. I wonder how difficult it is for those young people to accept their lives at home, where illiteracy is rampant and real opportunities are few, after that.
60 Minutes did a story on Landfill Harmonic in November 2013. Correspondent Bob Simon was present when a truckload of new instruments arrived, a gift from an American music-shop owner. Looking at the awestruck children, he wondered if the group's fame would lead to its undoing. In Simon's words, “The minute you become famous, you get some money and you buy a proper instrument and then who are you? You're another kid violinist. There are thousands of those around the world.... But there are no easy answers. I mean, you can't ask a guy to be a drummer on an oil barrel when he can get a real drum.”
Nicolás Cola has no issue with the idea that his ingenious creations may become obsolete, saying, “I'm happy because that trash will be replaced by instruments that have real value.” And yet, the question remains: What is the true value of music in these children's lives? Playing those instruments seems to have given some of them a sense of meaning and hope. But in the long run, does that matter when their adulthood will probably include little time for practice, doomed as most of them are to lives of picking up garbage?
How to help?
If music can help people cope with lives most of us would find nightmarish, I don't think we can dispute that music has real transformative power. (I should note that Nicolás Cola seems genuinely fulfilled making instruments from garbage, regardless of his meager income). Still, I don't think we should stop there. I hope that someone will see Juan Gerardo and offer him the financial support he needs to pursue a career as a classical flutist. And that he will, in turn, help other similarly talented musicians from his hometown. And that the money they make can be used to improve the water supply. Or even better, that the water supply, and so many other basic needs, will be improved right away, because of people with means who are aware of the orchestra and the deplorable conditions in which its members and their families live.
This is how the rest of us can join Favio Chávez in meeting the power of music halfway.