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Making Music Out of Trash

The world-renowned Recycled Orchestra of Cateura came to Steward in November as the first in this year’s Bryan Innovation Lab Visiting Innovator series.

“I am here because of music,” Recycled Orchestra of Cateura director Favio Chávez said onstage in Steward’s Robins Theatre. “I have learned so much more from music than anything else in my life. Most of all, I’ve learned that our Orchestra has the ability to inspire people.”

On November 14, 2018, Mr. Chávez and eight other members of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura (some as young as 13) traveled from Paraguay to Richmond to bring their music and message to Steward as a part of this year’s Bryan Innovation Lab (BIL) Visiting Innovators series. Steward’s World Languages department approached Director of the BIL Cary Jamieson last year with the idea to invite the Orchestra to Steward, and Ms. Jamieson and the rest of the BIL faculty took to it immediately.

“We loved this idea because the Orchestra’s story overlapped with so many of our values and strengths here at Steward,” Ms. Jameson said. “Our commitment to sustainability, our incredible Music and Fine Arts departments, our passion for making, and the idea of ‘inspiration,’ our theme for the year. It truly spoke to the idea of improving our world with what we have on hand. To me, it’s one of the most innovative and inspirational stories out there.”

The Recycled Orchestra was established in 2006 by Mr. Chávez, an environmental engineer and music enthusiast as a means to keep kids from playing in the nearby landfill. Twenty-year-old Ada Rios was among the members of the Orchestra who visited Steward, and her story is one of those featured in the award-winning 2016 documentary about the Orchestra, Landfill Harmonic. Also among the Innovators that day was co-director of the film Juliana Penaranda-Loftus, who shared her story and served as a translator for Mr. Chávez.

Cateura, Paraguay, where the Orchestra members grew up, is the site of a gigantic landfill. Because of this, most of the families who live there make their living by collecting trash and selling it. The landfill is what first brought Mr. Chávez to Cateura. “I came as an environmental engineer,” Mr. Chávez said. “I worked with people in the community on different issues around the environment and what they could do to alleviate the situation.”

A lifelong music lover, Mr. Chávez began giving free music lessons to some of the local children of Cateura early on in his time there. It was in his search for a solution to the problem of inaccessibility to real instruments that he came up with the idea of using the landfill to make music. “I saw that the people in the community had the talent to use [this trash] to make instruments,” Mr. Chávez said.

So the Recycled Orchestra was born, and their story has been inspiring the world ever since. While here at Steward, the Orchestra performed on the stage of the Robins Theatre for Lower, Middle, and Upper School students, and the energy in the room was palpable. Ms. Rios led the group in a rendition of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” on her violin made from a pizza pan and a fork, followed by Ezequiel Takebe on a harp made from materials from his childhood swing set.

Mr. Chávez invited young Spartans up on stage to share in the creation of music from recycled materials as well. Kindergartener Mason Wingfield got a chance to play “New York, New York” on Ms. Rios’s violin with help from Ms. Rios herself, and second-grader Keegan Turnage played a set of drums made from discarded x-ray film. “In order to be a good musician,” Mr. Chávez told the Lower Schoolers, “You also have to be a good human being.”

After a full day of performances and visits to classrooms all around Steward’s campus, the Orchestra ended their time on Steward’s campus in the BIL at the Musical Maker Fair with 200 members of the Richmond and Steward communities. Maker Fairs are a near-constant feature of Visiting Innovator events at Steward, and always focus on the concept of making, technology, and sustainability in a way that intersects with the Visiting Innovator’s story.

At the Musical Maker Fair, one of the featured activities was taking a piano apart and learning how it works from the inside out. Members of the Orchestra also walked around with their handmade instruments and attendees were invited to touch and see them up close. Impromptu jam sessions broke out between Steward’s music teachers and the Paraguayan musicians. “The energy was amazing,” Ms. Jamieson said. It was clear that everyone in the room at the BIL and the Robins Theatre during the Orchestra’s two performances could feel that same energy, including Mr. Chavez and the Orchestra itself.

“While performing at Steward,” Mr. Chávez said, “I could feel the truth of the message that music can unite people across different cultures and communities. In a time like this when the world can feel really divided, it felt, in that room, like we could really be unified through music.”

Before the Orchestra left Richmond, they were able to share their music and their inspiring story with the Greater Richmond community. On November 15, as a result of a collaboration between Steward, the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF), and the City of Richmond, students from community and area schools were invited to attend a performance with the Recycled Orchestra at the Dominion Energy Center in the Carpenter Theatre free of charge. Together with Ms. Jamieson, the Richmond City Council’s 7th District representative Dr. Cynthia Newbille, and Director for Arts and Equity at RMHF Kendra Jones opened up the program, which was attended by over 1,300 people.

“This is an extraordinary group of people,” Dr. Newbille said. “The opportunity for you all to share and learn from each other is really important for us.”

Ms. Jones echoed her sentiments, saying, “Our desire today is for you all to leave here aware of the hope and the creative possibilities that exist and persist in all of our circumstances.”

Standing up there with Dr. Newbille and Ms. Jones and presenting the Orchestra’s story to this community of kids was a powerful moment for Ms. Jamieson. “All of us are constantly receiving a lot of negative messaging about the future of our world,” she said. “But we [at Steward] believe that the world’s problems are opportunities for these kids to make a difference. I hope [the Orchestra’s story] inspired a lot of kids and showed them that anything is possible.”

Following a screening of a portion of the documentary Landfill Harmonic, the Recycled Orchestra performed a few musical numbers and then invited students from schools all over Richmond, including Steward, to come up on the stage and play one last piece together. The young musicians played and sang “Stand by Me,” arranged and directed by Lower School music teacher Samson Trinh.

“We all have different stories, backgrounds, and tastes,” said Mr. Chávez. “But we are all human beings, and music allows us to connect. We can still create something beautiful. That’s why we love music – it builds bridges.”

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