Born to grind

This may just be one of those hateful things people here say about the capital, but someone the other day told me that, in the first part of the C20th, the number of barrel organs per head of population in Madrid far exceeded that in Barcelona. Armando Palacio Valdés’ autobiographical La novela de un novelista (1921) is proof of the existence of the provincial organ (he grew up in Asturias):

However, in the midst of all this savagery was a delightful modernist artefact, a barrel organ no more than a century old. Taller than me, its repertoire consisted of pieces from an opera called The Caravan [camels, one hopes], waltzes from The Queen of Scotland [Lady Macbeth?], minuets and gavottes. Grasping its crank and making it sound, I understood my true vocation in this world: I was born to play the barrel organ. Faithful to its celestial voice I played continuously for 48 hours, only leaving my work in order to eat and sleep.

Armando’s enthusiasm soon wears off, but it will be familiar to anyone who has ever been left alone with one of these monsters–apart from brass bands, I can think of few sounds I prefer. The one we‘re going to use for our spectacle Maricones de Playa will be one of the most sophisticated and versatile ever built, but by moving beyond knitting-machine technology (and Armando’s probably wasn’t even that complex) it will be relatively simple to operate.

I think the last professional kapper (the guy who made the holes in the card books, initially by hand and later with machines running off discs; it’s the same word as “hairdresser”) working in Holland retired about a decade ago. Writing music for pre-MIDI organs was a strange business too, not least because, apart from having to adjust arrangements to the sonic resources of each instrument, heavy crosswise or diagonal strings of holes could cause books to rip and might be removed without warning by over-zealous kappers. I can’t remember the typical metre price for music, but books didn’t come cheap.

(Why should there have been more barrel organs per cap in Madrid? Wider streets, easier loans, more acceptance of cultural entrepreneurs, less regulation?)

Pero en medio de toda esta barbarie había un delicioso artefacto modernista, un organillo no más antiguo de un siglo. Era más alto que yo y su repertorio se componía de piezas de una ópera llamada La Caravana, valses de la reina de Escocia, minués y gavotas. Así que empuñé su manubrio y le hice sonar comprendí cuál era mi verdadera vocación en este mundo. Yo había nacido para tocar el organillo. Fiel a la voz del cielo estuve tocando cuarenta y ocho horas seguidas sin dejar mi trabajo más que a las horas de comer y dormir.

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  1. Interesting article.

    However, the last music producer has not retired !

    We have been making music for these mechanical organs since the 1970’s.

    We make for many organs worldwide, please see our website if you have an organ we would be happy to cut music for you !

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