The Power of Music – by Bonnie Wyler

Bonnie Wyler is a Literacy/Outreach Librarian at the library. Read Bonnie’s column in the June 5, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I began playing the piano when I was nine years old, and very quickly found that playing music was an outlet for my emotions, feelings I could not have articulated but that I felt intensely when I played beautiful music. There is something very powerful and life-affirming about expressing yourself in this way. Recently I’ve found that other people in some very unlikely places are having this same experience. One of the places is a garbage dump in Paraguay and the other is in the Republic of Congo in Central Africa. These stories are from two of the poorest countries on earth, yet in each instance, the power of music allows people to transform their lives and find hope.

Cateura, Paraguay is a town built on a garbage dump. The 2,500 families in the town make their living by picking through the garbage in order to find things to sell. An environmental engineer named Favio Chavez, who was working on a waste recycling project at the Cateura Landfill, made friends with families who lived among the trash. He saw the extreme poverty, illiteracy, pollution, and culture of drugs and gangs children were exposed to, and wanted to give them something positive in their lives. A former music teacher, he came up with the idea of teaching music lessons to these children. Chavez had a handful of personal instruments, but soon realized there weren’t enough for all the students who wanted to learn, and there certainly wasn’t money for new instruments. He decided to experiment, and with help from a trash worker and carpenter, Don Cola Gomez, began to create instruments with materials from the dump. Using incredible imagination and ingenuity, Cola took oil drums, paint cans, forks, coins and other junk from the landfill to fashion cellos, flutes, violins, and drums in his tiny workshop. He and Chavez experimented with different materials until they produced instruments with a truly excellent sound! Chavez eventually formed an orchestra of 30 students and that was the beginning of his Recycled Orchestra project. He has now taught more than 100 students, who play music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Chavez’s goal was not just to teach music but to transform these children’s lives through the power of music, and the orchestra has done that. It has inspired hope, provided stability and community, taught respect and responsibility, and brought the beauty of musical expression into their lives. Ada Rios, fifteen years old, says, “When I play the violin I feel like I am somewhere else…. I feel transported to a beautiful place….a place that is completely different to where I am now. It’s just me alone playing my violin.” The story of the Recycled Orchestra was recently told by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes; you can hear this amazing story and music made by children playing recycled instruments by googling “60 Minutes and Paraguay.”

In Kinshasa, the capital of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, 200 musicians and vocalists gather almost every evening to rehearse some of the greatest music ever written. They leave the poverty and hopelessness of their lives for a few hours to rehearse Bach, Mendelssohn, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Armand Diangienda is the unlikely conductor and founder of this group, the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra. After he lost his job as a commercial pilot twenty years ago, he decided to form an orchestra. The only problem was that he had no instruments, no musicians and he didn’t know how to read music. Driven by his passion to create an orchestra, he taught himself to play the piano, the trombone, the guitar and the cello. He recruited the first few orchestra members from his church; they in turn brought their friends and the group grew in size. The few available instruments had to be shared until more were donated or salvaged from local thrift shops and repaired. When violin strings broke, replacements were constructed from bicycle brake wire. I was amazed to learn that hundreds of musical scores were copied out by hand; individual parts were deciphered by listening to the piece over and over again on CD. As the orchestra grew, every room and corner in Armand’s house was filled with practicing musicians. In 2010, two German film-makers came to the Congo to make the documentary “Kinshasa Symphony.” The film so inspired two German opera vocalists that they travelled to Kinshasa to give master classes. Working with the Congolese vocalists, they were moved to see how the singers’ faces changed when they sang their music – how they closed their eyes and were transported to somewhere else by the beauty of the music. Two of the singers who lived ten miles away in the countryside walked six days a week, 90 minutes each way, to be at rehearsals. These singers were asked by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes when they had joined the orchestra. They answered, “November 8th, 2003.” Simon asked, “Why do you think you remember the exact date?” They responded, “…it’s like a birth for us in this symphony orchestra, so it’s a date we can’t forget.”

The inspirational stories of the Recyled Orchestra in Paraguay and the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra in the Congo illustrate the incredible power of music to lift peoples’ lives and give them meaning. Both stories were told by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes and can be found on the internet.* I strongly encourage you to listen to the amazing stories of these people and their music. You might also want to learn about a unique system of music education for disadvantaged children in Venezuela called “El Systema” in Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music byTricia Tunstall. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is performed in part by the Kinshasa Orchestra on the 60 Minutes program, can be found in the CD collection in our library, along with many other beautiful and inspiring works of music.

* The easiest way to find the two programs referenced in this article is to google

“60 Minutes and Congo” and “60 Minutes and Paraguay.”

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