I first became aware of the organization Landfill Harmonic when the following photo showed up in my Facebook feed.


By now the story of Landfill Harmonic is all over the place. It’s making a film about and generally promoting an orchestra of children who play music on recycled instruments. “In the barrios of Paraguay, a humble garbage picker uses his ingenuity to craft instruments out of recycled materials — and a youth orchestra is born. Music arises and children find new dreams.” You get the idea.

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I’m not going to argue that  children don’t benefit from this orchestra. And it’s really, really cool that you can make instruments out of junk. But I do think there’s something kind of weird about the way Landfill Harmonic represents itself. It’s not coming out and saying, “Thanks so much for being poor, because your poverty and the way you overcome it generates such a wonderful narrative that makes people salivate over our Kickstarter,” but it might as well. Also the phrase “The worlds sends us garbage, we send back music,” even if it was said by someone intimately involved in the project, implies that there is something beautiful and noble in the passive acceptance of poverty.

According to its Facebook page, Landfill Harmonic is doing very well raising money to make its film and take this orchestra on tour. And that’s not bad, certainly, but while everyone is feeling good about this, if they are, they should probably know that Paraguay is a place where the industrialized north of South America tends to like dumping its toxic waste. And you can’t make violins out of paint sediments and varnish residues.

Still, the actual kids are happy, and learning skills they’d never have access to otherwise (where they’re from, a violin costs more than a house). Some of the messaging just gives me hives. But I hear listening to beautiful classical music helps with that.

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