Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Street music

She stands on the corner of Calle Lopez and Ayuntamiento in the Central Historic District of Mexico City, wearing her khaki uniform and hat, and she balances the hefty Harmonipan barrel organ on its collapsible stick. Then she cranks the handle and the sounds pour forth. Piping, piercing, eerily wavering and yet also breathy with air pumped from its bellows, this is street music that hearkens back to the nineteenth century.

The story goes that in the 1890s, the German government sent a group of organ-grinders with their beautifully crafted instruments, made of polished wood trimmed in gold leaf with brass cylinders, to endorse the regime of President Porfirio Diaz. They became popular, both for private parties and for public entertainment in the parks of the city.

The instrument itself - the organillo - doesn't require a lot of musical talent to operate. The tunes are pre-programmed into the machine - not unlike a music box or a player piano - and the organillero, or player, simply cranks the handle to drive air into the bellows to drive air through the reeds. Most organilleros rent the machines from owners, and spend up to 12 hours a day on street corners, vying for the meager contributions of passersby. Organillos weigh up to 80 pounds, so this can be an unrewarding job.

The organillo is a finicky machine, too; an antique with internal reeds, stops, and whirring bellows, which requires skilled maintenance to keep it from going out of tune. It's no wonder that, over the years, the street organ's reputation has earned disdain and contempt as an urban nuisance. In 1929,  author George Orwell wrote of London's organ grinders:
To ask outright for money is a crime, yet it is perfectly legal to annoy one's fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them. Their dreadful music is the result of a purely mechanical gesture, and is only intended to keep them on the right side of the law
Orwell would have been horrified to see - and hear - another modern street music phenomenon in Mexico City's Metro. Although transit customers in New York, London, and Paris are used to buskers playing music in the subways for money, in Mexico City, these "buskers" forget about the pretense of musical artistry, and just concentrate on getting passengers to give up the pesos.

People walk through train cars wearing backpacks with speakers, holding CD players in their hands. The music plays loud and fragmented, short clips of random popular tunes, which blare at ear-piercing volumes as they walk through the cars. It is unclear to me whether they are selling pirated CDs or ransoming the peace and quiet of the passengers. This is truly Orwell's idea of annoying one's fellow citizens to earn money.

No, give me the organ grinders. Although you no longer see organ grinders in London, New York, or Berlin these days, traditional organilleros still are an important presence in Mexico City's Central Historic district. They were once members of a guild, the Union of Organ Grinders, which used to support them with housing and healthcare subsidies, and the ubiquitous khaki uniform they all still wear.

Take a moment to watch and listen to a soundscape of Mexico City that you'll never hear anywhere else. 


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Love that streetside sound! I think I'd take to wearing earplugs on the buses/subways, though...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

It gives the streetscape a carnival atmosphere.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Very interesting! After reading your post, I'm pretty glad I chose the considerably lighter flute to lug around from gig to gig.

smalltownme said...

We only saw 2 buskers in London - a bagpiper at Piccadilly Circus and a guitarist in the Gloucester road tube station who played some Pink Floyd. I would have loved to see an organ grinder.