MEXICO CITY — Few sounds are so distinctive to this capital as the tinkling, whistling melodies that itinerant organ grinders coax from their portable wooden barrel organs.
Hardly a downtown street corner or park is without a grinder in a khaki uniform turning the crank on a hefty instrument that whistles its high notes and rumbles with a bass refrain. An assistant passes a hat among pedestrians, collecting change.
One of the signature sounds of Mexico City probably would never have taken hold if an itinerant family of Italian organ grinders hadn't turned up nearly a century ago in Berlin and begun to manufacture hand organs. The Frati family's handiwork ended up as a German gift to Mexico, sparking a love affair.
But a century-old romance faces a defining moment, wounded by the indifference of a younger generation. Few of the aging organ grinders in Mexico City say their offspring plan to follow in their footsteps.
"I think it is dying out," said Jaime Diaz, a physician who dropped a few pesos in the outstretched khaki hat of an organ grinder as he walked out of a church after mass.
The hat belonged to Octavio Chavez Rodriguez, an energetic but stooped man who can recite the history of the portable barrel organs from personal experience.
"I've been doing this since I was 16, and I'm 70 years old now," Chavez said. It's been a good living that provided for a brood of sons, none of whom want to crank a hand organ fulltime. "They have other work. Only one works with me on Saturdays."
It is hard work. The hand organs can weigh as much as 80 or 90 pounds. Grinders must tote them to parks and markets. That's why they always work in pairs, taking turns lugging the mechanical musical instruments.
Sometimes they find a spot, only to be forced to relocate.
"Public spaces are limited," said Victor M. Maya, a spokesman for a group that calls itself Organ Grinders of Mexico. "When there are events, especially noisy ones like concerts, it becomes hard for us to make music. One alternative is to go on a route. We move to markets or public squares."
Oral history has it that at the end of the 19th century, the German government sent a gift to Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's then-strongman ruler. It packed aboard a ship several Harmonipan players — wooden hand organs made in Berlin and painted with ornate designs or with lute-playing cherubim.
At first, the hand organs were used in bourgeois parties. But years later, new hand organs were imported, and enterprising merchants deployed them in parks.
Most of the organs bore the name of Frati, the Italian family who moved to Berlin and set up a factory to make the organs, encased in oak and cedar with visible flute pipes, natty brass corner brackets and red velvet adornment.
Organ grinders slowly transformed from novelty performers to an intrinsic part of the city.
The fragile hand organs survived the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Under the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governed until 2000, guilds such as the ones formed by organ grinders received special treatment in exchange for unbending support for the PRI, the party's Spanish initials.
"We are all PRI-istas," Odilon Jardines explained as he sat on a bench in central Mexico City one Sunday. Jardines came to the capital from Hidalgo state when he hadn't yet reached his eighth birthday. For years, he earned his keep as a shoeshine boy, later getting a chance to become an assistant to an organ grinder.
He eventually became a founder of the PRI-instituted Union of Organ Grinders, which he said still has 126 members.
The PRI, he said, provided him and other organ grinders with khaki uniforms, health care and housing. The living was good enough for him to raise nine children.
Once a leftist party took over Mexico City government from the PRI, the perks withered. City Hall still offers organ grinders licenses and the right to occupy public spaces.
"The PRI came to an end and now they don't give us anything," Jardines said. "The left doesn't like the unions."
With his melancholic tone, Jardines strikes an emotion often associated with Mexico's hand organs. In a ballad to organ grinders, Javier Solis, the "King of the Bolero, wrote the lyrics: "Tear out bits of my soul with your notes/It doesn't matter if the memory destroys my entrails/Just keep on playing, playing."
Most hand organs are programmed with eight traditional melodies, at least two of them beloved songs, Cielito Lindo and Las Mananitas. Other ballads and waltzes can be programmed into each organ.
Turning the hand crank operates the internal bellows that push air through the pipes. The individual melodies are coded on internal pins and staples that trigger which pipes are activated. If a grinder cranks too slowly, the melody slows.
Jardines said some 100 hand organs are in operation in Mexico City. A few other cities, such as Morelia, Guadalajara and Oaxaca, have organ grinders but far fewer than in the capital. Many of Mexico City's grinders rent their organs by the shift. Jardines said he personally owns four hand organs. One of his renters slinked past on the sidewalk during the interview.
"Hey, when are you going to pay me?" Jardines shouted at the khaki-clad organ grinder. "Don't worry, chief, I'm just having a little problem right now," came the reply.
Jardines declined to say how much one of the hand organs is worth.
"I'm not going to tell you the price, because they will want to rob them," he said. "Even taxi drivers want to steal them."
The Harmonipan hand organs have gone for as much as $15,000 at an auction house in London.
Subject to constant mechanical stress, the organs require steady tuning and maintenance. They can break easily, rendered inoperable by sudden humidity or inclement weather. Repair is time-consuming. Each organ is considered unique and parts must be custom made.
"Right now, there are only a few people in Mexico who can provide maintenance and repairs to hand organs," Maya said, adding that the lack of repairmen created a crisis — resolved only with help from a far away country where barrel organs also are popular.
A Chilean hand organ specialist, Manuel Lizana, began making periodic trips to Mexico to repair organs and train technicians, Maya said.
Even still, a sense lingers that the end is nigh for the organ grinders.
Celso Mirando takes a break from passing the hat for Chavez along the main pedestrian walkway from the Zocalo, or main square, of the capital.
"The truth is," he says in a low voice, "that it is the older people who help us. Younger people don't appreciate what we do as much."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010