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Recycled Orchestra brings fresh joy with US debut in Phoenix

PHOENIX — It’s hard to imagine that soup cans, plastic paint tubs and spoons can be key pieces to musical instruments. Forks and spatulas can hold strings in place; buttons and caps fit nicely along a clarinet. An X-ray film can be stretched around a drumhead.

For about a dozen young musicians from Paraguay, materials they find at landfills are what they need to play music.

“We see in many parts of the world that have far less material resources than we have here, that music is actually valued as something that it’s essential,” said Daniel Piper, curator at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. “Something that we can’t throw away.”

The story about the Recycled Orchestra is nothing short of extraordinary. Garbage pickers in the slums of Paraguay comb through landfills to find forgettable items that, with the help of talented artists, become musical instruments. Those instruments have become a way out for dozens of kids in the poverty-stricken country.

The orchestra has been touring the world and made its American debut at MIM on Thursday. The group will also perform on Friday and Saturday.

“It’s not just a novelty to make funky instruments out of trash,” Piper said. “It’s a social movement using culture and music as a way to change one’s life and better one’s condition and give a sense of inspiration and vision.”

The visit to the museum has been packed with activities allowing the public to learn their art. Students from the Arizona School for the Arts learned how to put together their own instruments from recycled materials.

“We have wooden boards, metal coils, five-gallon bottles, laundry racks, screws, strings, cans and springs,” said Claire, one of the ASA students taking part in the instrument-making workshop.

Haley has created a rolling xylophone. She started with skateboard wheels, a plant bucket as the body that holds seven different cans inside, separated with packing tape to isolate the sound each makes.

“It’s a mix of soup and bean cans of different sizes,” she said.

Drum sets created out of milk crates, paint buckets, empty gallons of water and piping are just some of the creative ideas the orchestra is sharing in their visit.

The orchestra is performing to sold-out concerts at the museum. “It’s been so meaningful,” Piper said. During the first concert in Phoenix the orchestra received standing ovations.

The museum established a special exhibit with eight original recycled instruments from the orchestra, among them, a violin, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a flute, trumpet and saxophone. The exhibit will be formally dedicated to the group.

The museum will hold a family day Saturday during which the public can meet the group and hear performances.

The orchestra’s journey across the globe will continue, and it’s the subject of a documentary, and also on the big screen. “The Landfill Harmonic” is a documentary that follows orchestra director Favio Chavez and the artists behind the instrument-making, as they put together the group.

The film is slated to debut at festivals in January.