Mexico City, Apr 1 (EFE).– The streets of Downtown Mexico City are never silent during the daylight hours thanks to the nostalgic melodies played by organ grinders, whose presence in the capital seems to be anchored to the past.
Their pervasive and strident music blends in with the mixture of sounds that is everywhere in the capital’s downtown, including the raucous noises produced by the knife sharpeners or the whistling of the little chimneys on the sweet-potato vendors’ carts.
The organ grinders create an atmosphere of melancholy that is in danger of extinction, even though for many of them – by family tradition – it is their sole livelihood.
Since they started showing up in this city, standing still among the myriads of pedestrians walking through the historic city center, the organ grinders have gone through many ups and downs but they have managed to hang on.
Luis Roman Dichi is one of the survivors and also serves as general secretary of the Mexican Organ Grinders Union, the only union that still represents the profession and the only entity with which those who want to get started in it have to register.
He inherited the profession from his in-laws and said that the business could get complicated “if you’re doing something you don’t like,” but if you can keep your income well-organized and, above all, “if you’ve got a passion” for it, you can have a pleasant life.
Holding his 26-key Harmonipan brand street organ, Dichi told EFE in an interview that the very first organ grinders appeared in 1890 with the arrival of circuses, which used them to announce their shows around the city.
At the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, the organ grinders established themselves in the capital and began making their livings playing music for others in exchange for tips and the tradition continued developing as they changed their circus melodies for typical Mexican songs that – for the most part – referred to the Revolution.
Mexican philosopher and essayist Hector Zagal agrees with this version of history and attributes the prominence acquired by organ grinders early on to the lack of ways in which people could listen to music in those years.
“Now we have access to Spotify and everyone has more music available than (Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in the mid-1500s) Carlos the Fifth himself in all his glory,” Zagal told EFE.
There are different theories regarding the origin of their costumes, which are reminiscent of those used by Pancho Villa’s army during the Revolution.
Their attire, according to Dichi, may stem from the mid-1960s, when “total anarchy reigned” in Mexico’s street jobs and the city government was demanding that some kind of order be imposed.
However, Zagal said that the most widespread theory suggests that in Villa’s army there was an organ grinder who cheered up the troops with his music and “there’s probably a relationship between this and the uniforms that resemble those of the revolutionary forces.”
The outfit is distinguished by its color – between beige and khaki – and includes a round cap of the same hue that is usually used to collect coins from passersby.
After this golden era, during which the organ grinders rose in popularity and earnings, shortly after World War Two the German factory that manufactured the instruments – Wagner & Levien – stopped building them.
However, there were people who acquired the street organs and rented them out, and thus the profession managed to survive.
But during the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Mexico City government launched a project to restore the historic city center, and the plan called for preserving the organ grinders as an institution.
Dichi mentioned that the number of organ grinders operating throughout the downtown area has been declining, but only very slowly, in part “thanks to the support of local government.”
Until now, the characteristic street organs’ sound – produced by a crank that drives a bellows and rotates the organ and is considered by some to be pleasant and by others to be out of tune – continues to be heard on many of the capital’s busiest street corners.
Juan Daniel Tepozotlan, a 24-year-old organ grinder who said he decided to embark on this musical adventure to have time to continue studying, plays in parts of the city where not many of his colleagues perform.
Tepozotlan told EFE that at first, he felt a little embarrassed when he was out on the street but he soon began to “connect with the instrument and with the people who love it.”
“I am very grateful for this job. It has given me many things like being able to move up professionally, in knowledge, in beautiful experiences and in achieving goals. I feel very comfortable with it although I have other plans in life,” Tepozotlan said.