Downtown Tijuana is a constant cacophony. Taxis, calafias (tricked-out short buses), and other vehicles never stop honking. Sirens from police cars, fire trucks, car alarms, and ambulances seem to always distract one’s attention. And with no regulation, random cars blast their own noise advertising garbage pickup, company jingles, freshly baked bread, homemade tamales, and commercials for lucha libre events.
Walk around one of the busy blocks and you hear people yelling to offer tacos, newspapers, pirated DVDs, trinkets, fruits, vegetables, and even drugs. Bus and taxi managers shout the destinations and offer rides. Street evangelists quote the Bible through a megaphone while calling everyone sinners.
Bars blast music at deafening levels. So do businesses that have no reason to play music — farmacias, cell-phone providers, pawn shops, and clothing stores. There is construction or remodeling every few steps. Even the electricity cables that hang overhead buzz and crackle.
In the midst of all this chaos, a bearded young man wearing glasses and a tan military uniform with matching beret turns a crank of a wooden street organ. He smiles at passersby and extends a hat he uses to collect tips. A Curious George stuffed animal sits on top of his instrument.
“I never had a chance to use a real monkey,” comments Victor Maya, the organillero (organ grinder). “I know old timers that did use the little monkey, but it was rarely used.”
As Victor turns the crank, high-pitched whistles play an out-of-tune chirpy melody. The bass whistles are muffled, simple, and repetitive.
“My family has been playing the organillo for quite some time now,” continues Victor. “My brother plays the organillo, my cousin plays the instrument as well. My dad doesn’t anymore, but he also worked as an organ grinder. It has been more than half my life. I started working when I was 14 years old and now I’m 31. I travel regularly with a work partner and share the instrument. We arrived in Tijuana a year and a half ago.”
Victor is from Mexico City, where organilleros are a common sight. Organ grinders are usually retired old men, who do it as a hobby, and folks who are out of work. Victor is an exception. In Tijuana, I have only seen him and his coworker. This time, Victor is playing his instrument in the early afternoon outside Tijuana’s History Museum at the corner of Calle Segunda and Constitución. La Maguana, Tijuana’s most famous homeless woman, is usually across the street where she bathes with buckets of water outside the supermarket. She was not around that day.
“We have an association that works at a national level. The last registry that I remember had 260 to 300 organ grinders. Almost all of them in Mexico City. Around 90 percent of the instruments are found there. It’s tradition over there.”
Organ grinders started in Europe in the late 19th Century and then spread to the Americas. Some places, such as New York City, Paris, and London, considered them a nuisance and passed laws against them. They were so common in New York City that in 1880, 1 out of 20 Italian immigrants worked with the instrument. Organ grinders were banned from the city in 1936 by mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who reputedly resented the Italian-immigrant stereotype. The law was repealed in 1975, but organ grinders were obsolete by then.
In the United Kingdom, George Orwell had a particular disdain toward the organ grinders and wrote: in 1929, “We must note in passing that organ grinders should not be confused with genuine artists trying their best to amuse and entertain their fellows. They are simply beggars in every sense of the word. 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.” Begging was illegal, but entertainment was not. “If they did not insist on passing round the hat (which is their begging bowl), no one would give them anything.”
Places such as the Netherlands, Berlin, Vienna, Slovenia, Chile, and Mexico City, adopted them as tradition, each with their own quirks.
Victor tells me about his outfit. “Legend tells the story that in the revolutionary times of Pancho Villa, an organillero was with his army, and the music was used to soothe the men after a battle. In 1970, when the national association of organilleros was created, it was ruled, based on that legend, that our uniform was to be like Los Dorados de Villa [Pancho Villa’s ‘golden men’].”
How has it been for you in Tijuana?
“Here in downtown, Mexican folk will see me, listen for a little bit, and then give me a small tip. In other more touristy areas, foreigners stop and look at me, they walk around, and if they happen to go past me a second or even third time, then they will give me a coin or more.”
As he cranks, Victor explains how it works. “It’s a wooden cylinder with metal incrustations that when I turn the lever plays a keyboard. The bottom part has a bellow that sends the wind towards the whistles on top and to the bass whistles which are on the bottom. This particular organillo comes from Chile. The roll contains eight melodies: for example, this one has ‘Juan Charrasqueado,’ ‘Camino Barrera,’ ‘Caminos de Guanajuato,’ and other oldies like ‘Sera Sera,’ ‘La Paloma,’ and ‘La Vida en Rosa (La Vi en Rose).’ I can select a song, but I have to play it whole; otherwise, I can damage the mechanism inside, which is like a clock. ”
The voice of a man yelling that he is selling chocolates for one peso is heard over the music.
“Years back, we were touring from town to town in central Mexico. We decided to tour the Pacific coast. We played here at the border, then went to Tecate, Mexicali, San Luis Colorado, Ensenada, and came back to Tijuana. We decided to stay here because of the climate. It practically hasn’t rained since we got here. Other organilleros in Mexico City told us they can barely work because they are basically underwater. And here we are. It’s really hot out, but at least we can work and that is what is important.