Mexico City’s Roving Sounds of the Past

The Organ Grinders

Arnulfo Ysidro & Carlos Gutierrez

Mexico City is like any urban center with its whirl of activity and pace that sometimes overwhelms. It’s a city going full throttle. Yet, it still manages to whisper those subtle sounds of the past for those willing to listen. For decades now, the traditional sounds of Mexican ballads are heard throughout this urban beast. The sounds stream out from propped wooden boxes held by men and women clad in khakis, with arms outstretched. They peddle the plazas, streets and open spaces cranking out classics for tips all while sporting their traditional revolutionary attire. They are best known as “organilleros”, or simply, the organ grinders of Mexico City.

I recently caught up with Carlos Gutierrez and Arnulfo Ysidro, two men who proudly perform on the city’s streets in hopes of preserving this rich tradition. Here’s a peek into their chosen paths and some insight into a slice of Mexico City’s vanishing past.

Can you tell us about these musical instruments and how they ended up on the streets of Mexico City?

Arnulfo:  These instruments, which we call “organillos”, were brought to Mexico in the late 1800’s. They were given to our country as a gift from Germany and then Porfirio Diaz, our president at the time, provided them to people of lower means without any land to farm or other resources from which to make a living. They were a savior for a lot of people. And though these were originally made in Germany, by an Italian maker, they are what we call in Mexico, “un legado Mexicano o tradición Mexicana, a Mexican legacy or tradition.

So, are these instruments owned by an entity/business or do the individual organ grinders own them outright?

Arnulfo: Both! Some organilleros own them and some rent the pieces and share the profits with the owner. It just really depends! Carlos and I work as a team, but don’t own the piece. We both take turns cranking the instrument while the other will ask for a “propina” or “cooperacion”, tip. People usually tip whatever they feel like. This job is the same as in the past. It helps people of lower-income status like single mothers or students who are still charting out a career, people who really are just trying to get ahead and work for an honest living.

Arnulfo Ysidro

Can you briefly tell us how these instruments work? Are they difficult to play?

Arnulfo: To answer your first question, the organillos are basically barrel organs that operate with air. As we crank the handle on them, an inner bellow distributes the air among different pipes or barrels which make up the different notes you hear. All the melodies we play are already encoded in the instrument and lean heavily toward traditional Mexican classics, like ballads (corridos) which date back to the Revolution. So, from that perspective it’s simple. What’s difficult about this is the physical carrying of the instrument for long periods of time and distances. Most people wouldn’t guess, but the organillos weigh upwards of 50 kilos and feel much heavier as you move around the city. (He laughs)

Carlos, are there some melodies you personally prefer over others?

Oh sure!  There are two that come to mind real quickly. One is called “Amorcito Corazon” by Pedro Infante and the other is “Amor Eterno” composed by Juan Gabriel.

How about you Arnulfo?  Do you have any favorites or some that are more popular than others?

Personally, a melody that’s one of my favorites and a very important one to play on this instrument is, “Las Mañanitas”. It’s popular with a lot of people, and even though it’s a traditional song for birthdays, they still request it a lot.

What other melodies can you play for people?

Arnulfo: Oh, there are many! You have the ones Carlos and I just mentioned plus ones like, “Cielito Lindo”, “Carabina 30-30”, “La Bikina” and “La Adelita”, to name just a few.

Obviously, organilleros are a fixture here in Mexico City. How do tourists react to this long-standing tradition?

Carlos: It varies!  There are some people not bothered by us, while others literally cover their ears as they walk past us. Others love the music and want to take photos and tip us well. Some have even offered to buy the instrument. So, you have a wide range of people out here.

Carlos Gutierrez

Lastly, what’s the motivation for each of you to continue doing this?

Carlos: For me, personally, it’s about making a living and providing for my family. Secondly, it’s for the sheer pleasure of maintaining an enduring Mexican tradition.

Arnulfo: My motivation comes from my family’s history of doing this! We have several generations of organ grinders in my family. My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brothers have all carried on this legacy. We try to preserve this tradition, though nowadays, it’s not very well received and appreciated.

Arnulfo, why would you say this tradition is losing its audience and what would you attribute it to?

First, several people see what we do as a form of begging. They don’t picture it as an honorable job and a way to preserve a rich tradition. As for why this has happened, I think more than anything, it’s because the older people appreciate the significance behind it and have witnessed the evolution of it over the years.  The youth, on the other hand, don’t see it the same and have a whole different attitude. It’s basically a tradition that’s disappearing, and as you may know, here in Mexico we have so many beautiful things from our past that should be preserved and honored…

Mexicounmasked.com would like to thank Carlos Gutierrez and Arnulfo Ysidro for their time and for sharing about their contributions in preserving a fading, yet enduring Mexican legacy.

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