SANTIAGO – Dressed in his beret and pushing the picturesque cart on which he carries his portable instrument, Luis Lara, one of the fewer than 50 organ grinders left in Chile, wanders the half-empty streets of the capital Santiago playing his songs in exchange for a handful of coins.
Pedestrians can hear the familiar melodies coming from the organ from streets away, often stopping in small groups to take in a rare example of a part of Chilean folklore that is in danger of dying out.
The arrival of the pandemic in March – and the subsequent five long months of confinement – have all but silenced the organ grinders, many of whom have been forced to adapt by going from balcony to balcony so that the city’s residents can spare whatever they can.
“We went four and a half months without being able to work, we only survived thanks to what we had saved during summer,” laments Lara, who for 44 years has been turning the wheel of his barrel organ, which is adorned with colored banners, pinwheels, candies and other tokens that he and his wife sell for a living.
Chile, with more than 400,000 infected and 10,958 dead, appears to have passed the initial peak of the pandemic and is in the midst of gradually restarting its economy after lockdown.
The Chilean Minister of Culture, Consuelo Valdes, told EFE in an interview that organ grinding, which has always suffered the disadvantages of being an informal job, has become “much more vulnerable” as a result of the public health crisis “because it depends on the luck of the street.”
“The pandemic has exposed the precariousness and informality of the cultural sector and the historical debt that the State has with respect to that sector,” Valdes said.
The first organ players arrived in Chile from Germany and Italy at the end of the 19th century, establishing a cultural tradition with a “social function”: bringing music closer to those who cannot access it, Valdes says.
But over recent decades, the craft has struggled to attract new talent, and there are only around 50 organ grinders left in the country.
“Losing the profession would be like losing a letter of the alphabet,” Valdes said. “They are a part of our identity, culture and collective experience.”
The trade, which was declared a “Living Human Treasure of Chile” in 2013 and Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2017, has survived over the years by being passed down through the generations in homes and workshops.
That is also the case for Lara, whose family makes up 10 of the fewer than 50 remaining organ grinders in the country: “I taught my children and they now work as organ grinders (…) You can make a living from this job and we don’t want it to disappear,” he tells EFE.
The health crisis is just the latest challenge that these musicians have had to face.
Just five months before the pandemic, the largest wave of street protests in Chile since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1991) led to a raft of cancelled cultural street events that are the lifeblood for organ grinders.
“Since then we have been badly affected, we could not find work (…) We emerged from the protests and went into the pandemic. It has been quite hard,” the spokesperson for the Organ Grinders’ Cultural Cooperation of Chile tells EFE.