Organ Grinders

One of the prevalent sounds in Mexico City in the old section of monuments, parks and avenues is that of organ grinding. The instruments are not new: they’re mechanical not digital, claim German origin or Italian or both at once, are whistly and are stocked with tunes chosen for plaintiveness and Mexican familiarity mostly. The organ grinders have uniforms and often work in teams, one grinding while the other uses the hat to solicit contributions. They are pretty aggressive about soliciting, and usually the organ yields only one continuously repeated tune at any given place. Whether a succession can be obtained, or a different one arranged for, I do not know.

It is a good strong sound, and carries several blocks over the more muted sounds of today’s traffic, and the birds and of people going about. It is better than the orc sounds of digital production, and sweet, but I have very melancholy associations because I have seen them–twenty years ago–with monkeys, and that I associate with a rather lachrymose painting of one I saw before that, one of those terrible, sentimental, destructive pieces of non-art with nothing beyond it but only the unmitigated tragedy of an organ grinder, scratching his head, looking at a few coins in the hat, and his little monkey on the sidewalk with its tattered uniform and its sad, sad face. I don’t know why I should be prey to those cheap, false and manipulative things, but I am (I don’t even like to go to zoos and see caged animals), and when I hear the organ grinders in Mexico City that is the emotion the plaintive piping evokes. I feel pity for them, and I wonder if they labor with no assurance of a wage, and I wonder if I am being manipulated by what they do.

I would rather hear their sounds, but then because of the peculiar associations that arise, I would rather not. They are a Borgean element in the sound of this city for me, ambivalent. I gave one money when I was sitting on a bench reading and enjoyed the music for a while, but I don’t give them money when I just walk through the momentary aura of their sound. Can they live on that kind of arrangement? Does the city give them an inadequate basic wage which they then supplement with the tips they get? I would rather the thing were conserved, but is it less than decent labor and more like exploitation? All a human life is taken up in cranking a handle, as if it were a vocation. Is it that the whole thing could be motorized, that it strikes me pathetically? Then it would lose its point, though. What an odd instrument, and what an odd human connection, and what a fantastic place to have them around still.

I will have them more than I will not; in fact, I will have them precisely because I will not.


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