Melodies on the move -- Musical boxes that hold melodies and
history hope to return to be discovered by the Guatemalans.
By Julieta Sandoval, Prensa Libre, Guatemala
(Translated and adapted by Robbie Rhodes)
He was seen passing by, carrying the heavy case of the organillo on
his back, clenching the wide belt that crossed his chest. In one
hand was carried the cage with the little parrot, or a monkey generally
named Tití, that was trained to do some tricks. Upon arriving at
a corner he unloaded his instrument onto a wood pole that served as
support and he commenced to play his melodies. In only a few minutes
he would be surrounded by people who gave some coins as a reward for
the show. This traditional character strolled many years ago through
the historical streets of Guatemala, today he is only a memory.
The organillero [organ grinder] is an extinct art in Guatemala which
Germán Rodríguez, who has dedicated himself to the task of making this
mechanical instrument, wishes to recover. It is a special job that,
so far, is not recognized in Guatemala but in other lands like Mexico,
to where Rodríguez sends the machines.
Antique Spanish and German hand-cranked organillos are observed in his
workshop. The former are [street] pianos characterized by strings,
while the latter have pipes to emit the sound. These collection pieces
are the prototypes that Rodríguez uses for the manufacture of the new
instruments, which are almost exact replicas.
The desire to reproduce these artifacts arose about 11 years ago when
he bought an organillo coming from Quetzaltenango [108 km west of
Guatemala City]. Since a local repair place didn't exist, Rodríguez
began experimenting and upon reaching his objective he decided to
repair and manufacture the instruments.
A special art
Manufacturing barrel organs and barrel pianos is not easy. Each piece
is handmade in the shop of Rodríguez, by artisans specialized in a
certain area. The wood, the raw material, comes from the United States
or South America, depending on the use that it will have: a resonance
box or a frame. Each part is carved by hand.
The music is composed by a professional. The notes are represented by
staples that are placed into a wooden cylinder and they compose the
seven, eight or ten tunes that each barrel organ contains. There are
modern pieces like "La del moño colorado" or "Amor eterno." That is the
only difference that exists between the old instruments and the modern,
because the first ones delighted the public with polkas, waltzes and
marches. Most of the instruments produced in this shop have Mexican
melodies, since they are the major buyers.
The organillos sent to the neighboring country have the letters
"Hecho en Guatemala (Made in Guatemala)" applied very discreetly,
because the Mexicans are very jealous and they do not accept easily that
an instrument that still is part of their tradition is not produced in
A period of six months is invested in the production of these instruments,
in which five people take part. The one with the greatest demand is
the German style. A barrel organ can weigh 75 pounds, for which there
is a saying that goes, "Anyone can play the organillo, but not all can
carry it," explains Rodríguez.
Another instrument produced in this factory is the street organ, or
"tipo orquesta", that integrates trumpets, violins, violas, flutes and
tuba. An example existed in Retalhuleu [123 km west], but it was
destroyed by the 1917 earthquake.
In order to promote the art of organillo in the country, Rodríguez
began with presentations in the evening on Saturdays and Sundays in
the Calle del Arco in Antigua Guatemala [22 km west]. Subsequently
he says he has been well received on the part of passers-by who stop
to listen to the melodies.
Although his customers are at the moment only Mexican, Rodríguez hopes
to propel this lost tradition in Guatemala, and that the organ grinder
will again be heard in the streets -- the music can travel up to two
In Mexico exist more than 100 of these instruments, half of which are
in the capital city. The Union of Organilleros, in which there are
about 200 organilleros, continue the occupation whose origin goes back
to the 19th century during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1870-1910).