Organ grinders continue bringing music to Mexico’s streets, bucking the winds of change and refusing to disappear.
“It’s a humble job, but honorable,” Odilon Jardines, who has been a Mexico City organ grinder for more than six decades, said.
Jardines, who claims to be one of the oldest practitioners of the old-time occupation in Mexico City, arrived in the capital at the age of 8.
“I didn’t need to do it, my family had means, but I decided to take off and come here to see what was happening,” Jardines told Efe during an interview at his modest downtown Mexico City home.
The 72-year-old, wearing his trademark cap, talked about how he got started in the business, working in exchange for food and handing over all of his earnings for the day to the family that rented the instrument to him.
“That, and now I can say it, was real child exploitation,” Jardines said, adding that “I didn’t even have shoes” even though people gave him “good coins” because he was “so small” and was working hard.
Time passed, he found someone new to rent the instrument from and money started to come his way.
“I realized what they were keeping for giving me a mattress on the floor and some beans,” Jardines said, adding that he was finally able to buy a secondhand pair of shoes.
Things improved from then on and Jardines focused on learning a job that has not changed over the decades, operating an instrument that plays melodies recorded on tape, paper cylinders or metal cylinders that have the notes on them.
Jardines, who served as secretary for dispute resolution and work of the Organ Grinders General Union from 1974 to 1984, spoke nostalgically of a time when so many organ grinders worked the streets that they had to operate in shifts.
“It was always the turn of the same ones, so I organized a protest and we decided to go in and play the organ downtown without permission. In the end, they reported me, but we won, because it was not fair that the same guys always had permission,” Jardines said proudly.
He has devoted his life to organ grinding and the union, which has worked since the 1970s to set rules for members, who, unlike Jardines, increasingly have other jobs.
“Now, there are students, we have future doctors, teachers, who come to work to pay the bills. If they are young and are not studying, I don’t let them be here,” Jardines said, adding that the majority of his six children received an education.
The new system of part-time work, which occurs in two shifts, has revitalized an occupation that was having serious problems drawing workers a decade ago.
There are currently 178 organ grinders, according to Organ Grinders General Union figures cited by Jardines, up from just 70 in 2005, ensuring that the workers, who wear khaki uniforms in honor of Pancho Villa’s “Los Dorados” division, will be playing on Mexico’s streets for years to come.
The occupation is going through a period of “recovery and gaining dignity,” allowing instruments to be repaired and pieces that until recently were “terribly out of tune” to be played, National Music School professor Guillermo Contreras said.
Those who enjoy this type of street music, however, could find themselves affected by actions being taken by private interests linked to researchers and collectors, Contreras said.
The organ grinder’s trade has recovered, but other types of “traditional and nostalgic tunes” are being lost, such as vendors who arrive in neighborhoods and let residents know they are there by playing a distinctive tune on their vehicles’ horns, the professor said.
Use of the loud horns is now being banned in some districts of the capital, Contreras said.
Organ grinders face threats from new imitators, with people in some cities using cheaper methods of playing the traditional tunes with CD players, the music professor said.
The organ grinder’s trade “is very alive,” enjoying a “rebirth” that will allow people to continue listening to traditional songs, such as “Las Golondrinas,” “Las Mañanitas” and “Amorcito Norteño” in the streets, Contreras said.
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