Arts News: Making Music from a Pile of Junk

Performing as The Junkyard Orchestra, Amado Espinoza and his wife, Karen Lisondra (above), play handmade instruments that Espinoza creates out of junk. (from the artist)

If you’ve ever investigated the contents of an old garage, you might spot discarded PVC pipe, some old bike valves, a faucet, an unmatched kitchen glove, a broken broom, a vacuum tube without the vacuum, a busted-up rubbish bin or a crumpled-up cluster of grocery sacks.

While that might seem like a pile of junk, to a trained eye it’s a veritable goldmine of materials to build one-of-a-kind instruments. That trained eye belongs to Amado Espinoza, performer, composer and instrument maker.

“In my mind, there are a lot of designs, so when I see some object or material, I think, ‘oh, I can make this instrument,’ because it is based in a native instrument I saw before,” said Espinoza.

Espinoza is a virtuoso, adept in musical styles and trained on instruments from all over the world. Originally from Bolivia, he founded the Museum of Musical Instruments in his hometown of Cochabamba in 2000, which housed over 500 native instruments from six continents.

Espinoza has lived in Kansas since 2014 with his wife, Karen Lisondra. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, she has toured the world as a theater artist. They met in South America, began collaborating, then married.

Espinoza started building traditional instruments about 15 years ago but expanded to recycled instruments about five years later. In Bolivia, he offered workshops, teaching people how to build instruments out of materials they could access.

“In my country, there are a lot of poor people, so they cannot buy expensive instruments. I gave them another option, so they can create their own instruments,” he said. “It doesn’t sound professional, but it sounds good.”

His studio is filled with instruments he’s collected and instruments he’s built, traditional and otherwise. He demonstrated each of the instruments and explained how they were made.

Using found materials, Espinoza has built flutes based on Chinese, Arab and Native American designs out of plastic pipes; bagpipes using pipe and a plastic yellow glove; a charango from a cookie tin; a didgeridoo from a vacuum cleaner extension; sikas (Andean panpipes) from magic markers; a cello from a trashbin; a dumbek from a five-gallon bucket and an x-ray of Lisondra’s neck; and an Amazonian coyok (which emulates bird sounds) out of a plastic syringe. There are many others.

“All these recycled instruments are based in traditional instruments,” he said.

“Some instruments I can make in five minutes, but others I need to spend probably days or weeks. The recycled cello I made in two weeks; the bagpipes I made in five days, because I needed to figure it out, the sound and all the materials,” said Espinoza.

“We use a lot of tape,” joked Lisondra.

Espinoza and Lisondra share this knowledge with folks in the Kansas City region, visiting local schools as teaching artists with InterUrban ArtHouse, as well as touring to regional libraries.

Their workshops teach the basics of instrument construction, but they also weave in aspects of creativity, ecological concerns, indigenous values and a connection with nature, as well as life skills.

“We try to mix in those concepts of trial and error,” said Lisondra. “Making mistakes is part of the path.”

Espinoza is self-taught in constructing these instruments, relying on years of experience and a good deal of invention and experimentation. “I started making these recycled instruments in my country without any books or videos, just by myself. I learned by myself.”

But he isn’t just constructing crude noisemakers. “I can play any song on all of these instruments. The idea is that they can play real music, not just make sound.”

Espinoza and Lisondra, with percussionist Brendan Culp, performed for the opening weekend of Open Spaces. An hour before the performance, the cello, one of his newer instruments, kind of . . . exploded. Espinoza quickly constructed a one-octave marimba out of two-liter bottles, wood slats and bicycle valves, tuning it in the van as Lisondra drove to Swope Park.

That’s Junkyard Orchestra: ingenuity and resourcefulness, building something better out of what’s available.

For upcoming Junkyard Orchestra performances and other concerts, visit amadoespinoza.com/concerts.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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