Finding wealth in poverty

Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about a remarkable musical orchestra in Paraguay, where young musicians play instruments made from trash. For more information about the film, please visit

I was sent this video by a reader and shortly after that, by coincidence, saw it posted on the website of my local curbside recycling service. It’s clearly going viral.

Looking at the filmmakers’ Facebook page, it’s also clear that lots of viewers feel this documentary has an inspiring message. I too feel the inspiration, but I’m not so clear about the message.

Across the planet, there are millions of people who survive by sifting through garbage in search of objects of value. In America, this scavenging operates at arguably the most primitive level — less often by scouring landfills than by plucking food from trash cans and household items from dumpsters as people with no homes do what they can to survive. But wherever this activity happens, the same equation is at play: in the objects that one group of people see as worthless, another group of people find value.

From a purely materialistic perspective a story about people making violins from trash looks like extraordinary resourcefulness in a world of extreme inequality, but consider where this resourcefulness comes from — it isn’t simply an expression of a hunger that drives some people to make something out of nothing.

The eyes and hands that turn tin cans and other found objects into a musical instrument are guided by minds that don’t see trash — they see discarded materials waiting to be turned to a new purpose. Or, to put it another way, while poverty can feed desperation, it can also fuel an inventive imagination. And such an imagination sees the possibilities in what is present as clearly as the limitations imposed by what is absent.

(If to my eye there is a somewhat depressing element in this story, it is that the creativity that gave birth to these instruments then gets channeled into a somewhat less creative endeavor: the imitation of the music bequeathed by European colonists rather than an exploration of indigenous idioms. Too often, those who struggle to rise out of poverty, do so by trying to model themselves on their own oppressors.)

I see on Facebook some well-meaning inquiries from individuals wanting to know how they might donate unwanted instruments — couldn’t a shortage of instruments in one country be resolved by diminishing the glut from elsewhere?

All across America there must be thousands of violins and trumpets stuffed in the back of closets, discarded and forgotten, waiting to be placed into appreciative hands. But why were they abandoned in the first place?

We live in a land of excesses — too much stuff and too many sources of instant gratification. Learning to play music is hard and painful and demands patience and discipline. Why struggle to play music when it is so much easier to listen to it?

We have reduced culture to a commodity. Its creators possess what most of us regard as a rare attribute, talent, and thanks to the mass production of devises like iPods we can passively consume the creativity of others.

Whether talent is less rare than we imagined we may never discover because we are content to rely on the talent of others rather than delve within and explore our own.

Maybe the message from the children in Cateura says less about how much they have made from so little and more about what we have lost through having so much.

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