organ grinders



Last week I posted about the sweet potato salesmen who announce their presence on the street with a shrill steam whistle, the same way they did in the 19th century. Another anachronistic apparition on the streets here, principally in the centro histórico, are various men and women in beige uniforms, who tend to work in pairs. One hand-cranks a hurdy-gurdy while the other seeks alms in an extended cap. (You can see this fellow's partner reflected in the plate-glass window.)


I used to believe that these machines were brought to Mexico during the invasion of the Hapsburgs in the 1860s, during the two or three years that Maximilian was emperor. But I subsequently learned that they came at a later date, around the end of the 19th century, as part and parcel of a substantial German immigration. Called Harmoni-Pans, they were manufactured by Frati & Co. in Berlin.






I was told that there was only one man in Mexico City that knows how to tune the instruments. However, when I worked as an editor at a city magazine, I sent two reporters to find him, and neither could. Given how out-of-tune most of the hurdy-gurdys are, I imagined that the people who operate them couldn't find him either. 


A friend of mine, the novelist Gonzalo Soltero (see a link to his blog on the list of friends to the right) tells me that there indeed was only one hurdy-gurdy tuner in the city, a Chilean -- but he died. So if you know how these things work, come on over. You job is guaranteed.


Those interested in learning more about the lives of the hurdy-gurdy men can look for a book called La vida de los organilleros, tradición que se pierde, written by Victor Inzúa and published by Dirección General de Culturas Popularese e Indígenas.