The Debt of Music: Globalizing Music Education

1:07:00 PMJulia Premus

“The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” (1)

Cateura, Paraguay is one of the poorest slums in Latin America.
Surrounded by drugs, violence, alcoholism, and destitution, Cateura is used by its neighboring cities as a landfill. The townspeople rely on the trash deposit for their livelihood and sustenance. Several years ago, however, a garbage picker named Cola, known locally as “the untutored genius of the slum” (1), had a revelation. As Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, “An heir of Beethoven is one who, in an hour of unrepeatable fruitfulness, after the eruption of unheard-of new musical possibilities, is capable of incarnating this unique musical situation in his own genius.” (2)

And indeed he did.

Cola and local musician/orchestra conductor Favio Chávez paired up and set out to collect useful garbage, craft instruments, distribute them to the children of Cateura, and provide them with free music education.

Landfill Harmonic, a documentary released at the 2015 SXSW Festival, follows their journey as they and their students unite to create “The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura.”

From an oil drum, discarded wood, and a bent fork comes the fairy-spirited violin and the macabre cello.

From water pipes and spoons, the flute.

From packing crates, the guitar.

From garbage comes the freedom of expression.

From nothing comes man.

The rich culture of Cateura - mainly comprised of family bonds, friendships, and the intensity of daily survival - can now be expressed and immortalized forever in the music of its youth. As Chávez says, “A community like Cateura, is not a place to have a violin, in fact, a violin is worth more than a house here.” (1) Cola and Chávez are helping to fill the gap in the world’s musical canon that has resulted from poverty and destitution.

The story went viral in 2012, and the orchestra has since learned to navigate the world of international fame and sold-out concerts. Even when a natural disaster struck the country, Chávez found a way to keep the orchestra intact as a symbol of prosperity for Cateura. Landfill Harmonic ultimately testifies to the transformative power of music and the ability of the human spirit to prevail through literally anything. However, it also brings light to a disturbing truth about the state of globalized music education in 2015.

Besides not having access to free public education, millions of children around the world do not even have access to musical instruments. One of the Cateura musicians, Ada Maribel Rios Bordados, said, “When I listen to the sound of a violin, I feel butterflies in my stomach. It’s a feeling I don’t know how to explain.” (1) In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues we personalize success too much, forgetting to attribute the external forces that factored into a person's success. Gladwell argues taht hildren like Ada cannot completely will their own success; the necessary circumstances must come to them to foster their potential. (3) Impoverished children are no less sensory geniuses than others - they are merely at a disadvantage to cultivate that genius. On an even wider scope than that, they’re people, and as people, they are entitled to instruments. But is access to a musical instrument really a human right? Food, water, and shelter are the rights of all creatures, but don't humans deserve humanity?

Chávez and his fellow educators are helping to break the crippling cycle of poverty by granting an entire generation the ability to form holistically, both as individuals and as a human community. As Mozart says in Amadeus, “With music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it's not noise, it's a perfect harmony!” (4)

Furthermore, instruments are providing the children of Cateura with the developmental, social, and even therapeutic benefits scientists have attributed exclusively to the act playing music. As Deepak Chopra says, “Our biological rhythms are the symphony of the cosmos, music embedded deep within us to which we dance, even when we can't name the tune.” (5) A recent scientific study discussed in Elena Ganne’s book The Power of Music shows that playing music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. (6) Playing music is written into us, biologically and spiritually. Such benefits to both personal health and society ought not to be considered a luxury for the few. As a Cateura musician so heartbreakingly said, “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either. (1)

As a violinist, I can testify that my instrument functions as a limb. Instruments are an extension of the body, allowing for that body to further articulate the soul and unite with the Divine. As Beethoven says, “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” (7) Billy Joel attests to this enlightening power, calling music an "explosive expression of humanity." (8) Without this freedom of expression, human beings are like unplayed instruments, bearing internally the crushing weight of stagnated possibility and unarticulated imagination. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes,  “Music in fact opens new dimensions of beauty and poetry in the elements of nature; analogous to the true lyric poem, it reveals deeper layers of the poetic character of nature.” (9) The revelation of music is a universal language which all humanity should learn to speak.

Initiatives like the Landfill Harmonic show that there is no excuse for failing to provide any child with the creative necessity of a musical instrument. In a country as financially abundant as the United States, music programs, which Beethoven calls “higher revelation than all Wisdom and Philosophy" and "the wine of a new procreation" (10) must never be cut under any circumstances. “My life would be worthless without music,” said one of the Cateura musicians. (1) In the thousands of other communities like Cateura, where resources are more limited, there is a call for craftsmen to bring their talents and train local people to learn to craft instruments from garbage. Music can heal the world, but only if we pass it relentlessly to the future generations.

Julia Premus 

I can't seem to read enough Ray Bradbury. When I'm not reading, I'm playing violin, Super Mario, or Super Mario songs on violin. 


(2) von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. 1961.
(3) Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. N.p.: Back Bay, 2011. 336 pages. Print. 
(4) Amadeus. Dir. Miloš Forman. By Peter Shaffer. Perf. F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice. Orion Pictures, 1984.
(5) Deepak Chopra.
(6)"'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
(7) Ludwig van Beethoven. Letter to Emilie, July 17, 1812. Quoted in Musical news, Vol. 3 (1892), p. 627. Print.
(8) Billy Joel. Interview. 
(9) Dietrich von Hildebrand. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. J. Habbel, 1961. 118 pages. Print.
(10) Ludwig van Beethoven, as reported by Bettina von Arnim in a letter to Goethe, 28 May 1810. Goethe's Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde: Seinem Denkmal, Volume 2, Dümmler, 1835, p. 193. Print.


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