Moon over Hamburg street by Brian Martin-Onraët

(Blog Brian)

Must have been pushing80 when we first met. On Hamburg street in the Zona Rosa, Mexico city. Three o’clock in the afternoon, on an October Sunday, many years ago. The rains were over. I was enjoying the sun, and that special light of October in Mexico.

            I was having lunch at the Angus, under the red awning; I’d picked a place where the sun could reach me, while I looked at the old colonial façades of grey stone, with their ornate windows. Right there, at that very moment on the terrace, I felt like on a street in old Madrid, or even Paris, anywhere, far away from Mexico.

            When I saw or heard it, this impression of being elsewhere struck me. It played an old German tune, looking dignified, old, very German. Who knows under what circumstances it had come to Mexico.

            It had a weathered dark honey color, with a large leather belt to hang it from the shoulder.

            It was, I think, one of the last barrel organs that still walked the streets of Mexico.  The manufacturer’s address was engraved, on the front, in golden letters: Schoenhauser Allée 73 – Berlin. I never actually looked up Schoenhauser. I knew of Schopenhauer, but Schoenhauser?

It was a large “music box”, a barrel organ, with a handle, played by a man who looked just as old. Were they “born” at the same time? Or had the musician bought it from some German player who’d come to Mexico in the 19th century? I don’t know.

            The organ played again. I closed my eyes and the music took me back to dreamed memories of Europe, at a time when long-vanished organs sang about early, dark December nights, lit only with the lights of the shops decorated for Christmas, people walking fast in the cold and rain or snow, doing their last shopping, hardly listening to the music.

            It wasn’t that cold here by far, but people barely listened to the music either.

            I gave some change to the musician, guardian, companion of the barrel organ; then the two went to another street: London, Florence, Berlin, such are the street names in that neighbourhood, an instant trip back to my old Europe.

            When I asked the waiter, he told me that the barrel organ was the last one in Mexico, that the organist’ name was Joaquin. The “music box” was very large, and he could hardly carry it anymore, but they had been together for 60 years; they were old friends, Joaquin and the barrel organ from Berlin.

            I saw them only once more, around November or December, on London street. Joaquin looked pale and worn, and the organ sounded sad. I wanted to talk to Joaquin to learn more about his history and the organ, but, as always, I didn’t have time. Another day…

            A year later, I was back at the Angus, one Sunday at the same table, with the same waiter; I asked him what had happened to Joaquin and the barrel organ.

“Joaquin? Oh sir, he died in December. He caught a cold playing the organ in the street, and at his age, in winter… He died of pneumonia, in only two days. Sadly, not even his children went to see him.

“Yes, that is very sad. Families. What happened to the organ?” I asked.

“You know what’s funny? It disappeared. The sons wanted to sell it, but they couldn’t find it anywhere in Joaquin’s small room. A shame, it was the last organ in Mexico…”

The waiter turned around to see whether anyone was listening and whispered:

“Now, sir, I don’t know how to say that… but there is something else. There are no organists in Mexico anymore, right?

“No. Not any more”, I answered, “it’s been a long time since I have seen, I mean, heard one.

“Well, I have been told that one night, last February, when there was a lot of wind, you know how there is always a lot of wind in February, someone heard the Organ, with the same touch Joaquin had, here, on Hamburg Street, and when they went to look, there was no one but the moon.”

There’s a moon over Bourbon street tonight
I see faces as they pass beneath the pale lamplight
I’ve no choice but to follow that call
The bright lights the people and the moon and all
© Gordon Sumner Aka Sting.

Barrel organ, Mexico city. Great picture. I didn’t know the author. Gilles Labruyère found the source: The movie “Roma” by Cuarón. The author of the photograph is Carlos Somonte. Merci Gilles.

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