Néstor Pinsón
| Julio Nudler

The "organito" (the barrel organ)

portable instrument to reproduce melodies by turning a handle and so causing a spiked or toothed cylinder to act mechanically on keys. Barrel organs of different sizes and features were available. Assumed to be of Italian origin though several specimens manufactured in France, Poland and Germany also arrived in Argentina.

The music was recorded in the cylinder, made of wood or cardboard. Only a musician could do it because the melody had to adjust to the scale of the instrument. It was also necessary to achieve that, by turning the handle at a same speed, a polka, waltz or tango sounded equally good. Between eight and eleven pieces could be recorded in the same cylinder.

In Buenos Aires, the most renown barrel organs were the brands Rinaldi-Roncallo and La Salvia. La Salvia brothers claimed to be the first and only local manufacturers. Their grandfather would have arrived to the country in 1875.

The barrel organ or organito was the greatest tango promoter by late of the 19th. century and early 20th. century since it reached a popular auditorium that had no easy access to music before radio broadcasting. Also, its music managed to reach —in an effective though discreet manner—, through gates and windows, decent houses whose dwellers were indifferent —only apparently— to that tango which still carried the burden of prohibited music.

Already the Martín Fierro, a remarkable gaucho poem written by José Hernández in 1872, made reference to the barrel organ:

Allí un gringo con un órgano
y una mona que bailaba
haciéndonos rair estaba.

Not only was their music attractive but they were also travelling fortune tellers in exchange for a coin. Fortune relied upon a parrot's beak from which a pre-printed fortune message was slipped out to the delighted girl delivering the nickel. In 1965 the monthly magazine Leoplán published an interview to a barrel organ player who called himself Don Rafael and told that the lucky parrot was an Argentine invention..., «that (he) had 60 different clichés to print colorful papers that the little parrot would take out when the door were opened. That parrots were difficult to tame but could live as much as 20 years. And that Argentineans, mostly women, liked to be told their fate; otherwise, they would not give a cent».

Such an original trick was referred to in several tangos: “El último organito”, by Homero Manzi, and music composed by his son Acho (the version recorded by Aníbal Troilo orchestra and sung by Edmundo Rivero is one of the most valuable pieces of the genre), “Organito de la tarde”, with music by Cátulo Castillo and lyrics by his father, José González Castillo (the most successful instrumental version was played by Carlos Di Sarli orchestra, not to mention the excellent recording sung by Alberto Marino with his own orchestra); “Organito del suburbio”, by Antonio Bonavena, “Música de organito”, by Manuel Buzón, Osvaldo and Carlos Moreno, “Organito”, by Juan Carlos Graviz, and “Organito arrabalero”, by Ernesto Baffa and José Libertella.

Apart from the first two of those tangos, especially interesting is “Cotorrita de la suerte”, with music by Alfredo De Franco and lyrics by José de Grandis, a melodrama around the barrel organ.