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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
September 2002

Barrel-organ players:
Music from our streets

The presence of barrel-organ players is registered in Chile since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Brought mainly from Germany, some from France, these music boxes were used by poor people to get a charitable tip from passersby. Today, the barrel-organ players are an organized union, whose work responds to artistic and technical criterion and is seen by them as a dignified job, part of a cultural heritage that is still alive.


By the year 1928, Héctor Lizana was already carrying his barrel-organ through the Franklin area and the Central Market. To this man, now close to his 85 years and that dances with a youngter's grace, we credit with the making of the "chin-chin", a drum with cymbals that the dancers called "chinchineros" use to follow the barrel-organ's tune, with dances similar to the ones seen on the North. His son, Manuel, is currently the only maker and repairer of barrel-organs that now exists in Chile. To his workshop in the area of La Bandera arrive all the machines that need some kind of adjustment.

Thanks to the FONDART (State Funding for the Arts), four years ago Manuel could start dedicating himself to the fixing of eighteen original barrel-organs. Through the association he leads, and that gathers twentysix players, he guards for the correct sound, the good presentation, the authenticity of the instruments and the good performance of the job. Now, it is not strange to find barrel-organs that are nothing but a disguised stereo, much cheaper than a true barrel-organ with its traditional tunes stored in a sophisticated system of pipes and gears that needs proper maintenance.

As a way of certifying its authenticity, barrel-organ players have gradually formalized other elements, such as costumes, made of dark trousers and a short sleeveless jacket over a white shirt of vivid colors.

Original from the suburb of San Ramón, outside Santiago, the Lizanas make a lineage and authority on all that is barrel-organs and "chinchineros" related. They are called for parties, celebrations and shows related to popular cultural heritage. Three generations meet in the group: Héctor, who plays the chin-chin and dances, the same as his grandsons and his son, Manuel, in charge of the barrel-organ. Into this art since little boys, the young grandsons feel proud of a job that always attracted them.

"With this, one knows many places, many people, has fun and also makes some money", explains the grandfather. Their daily routine is centered on the streets of Santiago's richer neighborhoods. "There, we work on houses", says Héctor.

Barrel-organs and popular culture
During the first week of September, thanks to an initiative by a group of students from Universidad Católica, a seminar about popular culture was organized. One of its tables, in charge of the musicologist Agustín Ruiz and also integrated by the player Manuel Lizana, dealt with the issue of barrel-organs and "chinchineros" as cultural heritage. The professor highlighted the ethical commitment that must guide the investigation of popular traditions telling that, in their job, investigators owe themselves to the musical performers now existing, so they should keep in perspective not only their goals, but also the expectations of those involved, dealing with someone who comes to study their culture and expressions.

Along with the barrel-organ players from Valparaiso, on the mid-90s, Ruiz made a collection of musical repertoire from the barrel-organs, that was recorded on tape. That meant more resources for the barrel-organ players, along with the handcraft toys they sell -such as the sawdust ball or the "frog" (a small cardboard box that sounds when spinned, due to the vibration of a mane, now replaced by a nylon thread)-, the lucky paper chosen by their parrots and tips. The recordings never took on complete pieces of music to avoid their use by fake barrel-organs. On the year 2000, the same staff made an exhibit on the Congress to sensitize and get support to the players job.

Is not until the year 1920, when the Chilean player acquires a shape of its own, and distances himself from the Europeans. The lucky parrot is one of its distinctive elements. "Previously, there was the "little monkey" but it was very messy", remembers Manuel Lizana. "Sometimes, it would scratch the children and the players would go to jail". By then, there were about two hundred barrel-organs, now there are only twenty nine. During the forties, the songbook and the first handcraft toys are added, usually made on the players' homes by their wives. The female genre has a scarce presence on the barrel-organs lead, a role traditionally reserved for men. There are only two women players in our country.

"In the middle of the 20th Century, this job was seen very much depressed, something that is reflected on an article published by the writer José Donoso on the "Ercilla" magazine, entitled "Music destined to die". The job was perceived as something decadent, terminal, on extinction, proper of tramps. The buying of the barrel-organs by the players, that become owners and administrators of their instruments, determines a very important change. The profession dignifies itself and the barrel-organ players value, defend and improve their jobs, as a way of survival and a way of life. Before, the player was a mere tenant, that depended on the conditions put by the owner", says Ruiz.

The work that the barrel-organ players have done to value, dignify and project their jobs is not equivalent, though, with its social response. "Until now, barrel-organ players are chased on some major cities and even imprisoned. Chile is a country that still avoids giving a public space to popular expressions", accuses the musicologist.


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