Take Two

Written by Matt Cole Category: People Issue: August 2013
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

On an already-sizzling weekday morning in Paradise Valley, the only thing Alejandra Amarilla wants to talk about is the children. All 20 or so of them back in the tiny, rubbish-strewn Paraguayan shantytown of Cateura.

The fact that Amarilla would rather discuss musical prodigies in South America than the three children she shares with ex-husband Steve Nash would certainly disappoint the TMZ and Us Weekly gossip rags of the world – or any of the countless tabloid entities that have taken a keen interest in the former couple’s painfully public custody battle inside Maricopa County Superior Court. However, here inside her spacious yet half-empty home, with moving boxes stacked in corners and a realtor’s business card tucked into one of the family portraits lining the foyer table, it’s clear Amarilla’s whirlwind life as the wife of an NBA superstar is a figment of the past.

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Amarilla’s personal woes may be all over the gossip pages, but the more enduring human-interest story – which has garnered coverage everywhere from NPR to the BBC – is her upcoming documentary spotlighting an improbable youth orchestra that makes beautiful music with instruments crafted out of trash. Seriously. It’s a story so remarkable and disarming that 60 Minutes recently dispatched correspondent Bob Simon to spend a week with Amarilla in Paraguay – her native country – for a segment that will air later this fall.

Titled Landfill Harmonic, the film has roots that go back three years – and, for Amarilla, a lifetime. In 2009, inspired by charity work she’d done in war-torn Northern Uganda alongside the wives of other professional athletes, she felt a pang of nostalgia. “I suddenly had this overwhelming desire to get back to my country,” Amarilla says. “These women I’d met in Central Africa, they had overcome so much. To see them getting their education and being empowered in such difficult circumstances, it really put even a relatively poor country like my homeland in perspective.”

Amarilla, who went back to her maiden name earlier this year, also wanted to reconnect with her heritage, having left Paraguay at a young age when her economist father hooked on with the United Nations. The life of a diplomat-brat meant moving every few years to a different developing nation across South America and the Caribbean. Looking back, Amarilla says it taught her the skill of adaptability. In her early 20s, she dropped everything and moved to New York City on her own. Two years later, in 2001, she was introduced to a certain famous basketball player at a restaurant, and once again Amarilla’s life was uprooted, as she found herself moving from Manhattan to Dallas to Phoenix, this time alongside her husband and with their growing family in tow.

It was a storybook romance with a less-than-happy ending. After marrying in 2005, the couple divorced in 2010, announcing their separation in a terse media statement mere days after the birth of their third child. And although Amarilla demurred when asked about the reasons behind the breakup, she says she was excited to finally throw herself body and soul into her dream career as a filmmaker. “I grew up in a passionate music-and-film family watching a lot of old foreign films by Fellini, De Sica, Tornatore – my favorite feelgood/romantic film is Cinema Paradiso – to Ingmar Bergman and Kurosawa,” she says.

Building upon the experience of her first foray into filmmaking – the 2009 short film Unleashing Creativity, about how Free Arts of AZ uses art programs to help heal abused, homeless and at-risk children, which Nash co-produced – Amarilla set forth on a Paraguayan expedition to find a new project. After months of talking to community leaders and local nonprofits, she met someone who “casually mentioned this recycled orchestra that couldn’t afford instruments, so they created them out of trash,” she says.

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Dubbed the “Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura,” this tiny chamber orchestra is based in the outskirts of the sprawling capital city of Asuncion, where Amarilla – who serves as executive producer on the film – and her crew discovered a small community of dirt-poor farmers struggling to eke out a living by harvesting the only crop found in abundance – garbage. Named gancheros for the long hooks – or ganchos – they use to dig though the piles of trash, this community of approximately 2,500 people literally lives atop the city’s municipal landfill, picking and sorting through the more than 1,000 tons of garbage dumped here every day. 

It’s hard, dangerous and backbreaking work, Amarilla says – a daily excavation of never-ending piles of rotting refuse and toxic sludge, looking for plastic bottles, scraps of metal or cardboard, and anything else that can be recycled for money. All of which makes it even more surreal to hear the distinct sounds of Beethoven, Mozart or The Beatles echoing across the stained soil.

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Founded some five years ago by a music teacher looking to keep the village’s youths out of trouble, the ragtag orchestra was constantly short on instruments. After all, Amarilla says, “This is a place where a single violin costs more than a house.” Desperate, the music teacher turned to a local trash-picker with carpentry skills to repair a broken drum dug out of the landfill, and things just steamrolled from there.

Today the orchestra features a “cello” made from an oversized oil can and well-worn strings secured with a metal spatula, as well as a “soprano saxophone” crafted from plumbing pipes, bottle caps, plastic buttons, a metal spoon and fork handles. “When you walk with [the gancheros] through the trash heaps,” Amarilla says, “they can spot something and just know it will work. It’s really quite amazing.”

Owing to Amarilla’s patronage, these hand-built marvels of musical engineering are now on display at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, housed alongside iconic instruments such as John Lennon’s piano. The MIM is tentatively scheduled to host a live performance by the “Recycled Orchestra” this August 9th and 10th.

Of course, by then, pending the outcome of her legal gambit to relocate her children to California, which Nash opposes, Amarilla may have joined her ex-husband in Hollywood. “I already have another film in mind as well,” she says, “so I am very excited at the prospect of being at the epicenter for filmmaking.” But that plot point, like much of her life, is still in the editing room.

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In fact, the only certainty in Amarilla’s life right now is how the film, which started both as a step toward independence and a way to raise awareness about her home nation, has become so much more that that. Currently in post-production, she plans to submit it to Sundance and other top indie festivals this winter – and with any luck, pick up a distributor so audiences can see and hear the landfill musicians on the big screen. 

“This project, the kids and their community are helping me more than I am able to do so for them,” Amarilla says. “It’s taught me about healing and transformation through the power of the human spirit to overcome any life situation, and that I have no excuse not to get up from the challenges I may face, and to live life fully.”