Mexico City

The Sound of the City

How to pick a single sound that represents Mexico City? There are a few candidates. Some visitors might nominate the frantic, non stop tooting of the car horn. Drivers do, for sure, overuse that particular feature of their motor cars, but I’ve been to Cairo where the horn is sounded every five seconds as a matter of routine. Citizens of DF are positively restrained in comparison.

Then there are the cries of ‘Tamales Oaxaqueños’, either verbally or through a loudspeaker, as mobile food vendors stroll the streets in the evenings. Or the high pitched whistles of the sweet potato sellers. But these don’t get my nomination either.

For me, the signature sound of Mexico City has to be the soulful, woeful wails being squeezed out of the ancient German made Harmonipans by organ grinders around the city. The Centro Historico is a good place to find them….you can almost always hear one wherever you are. But you’ll find plenty of them outside of the touristy areas too.

It’s a dying art I’m told. I can believe it. Whilst some blame the youth of today for not wanting to take up this most honourable of trades, once subsidised by the ruling PRI party, I blame the organs themselves. They are horribly out of tune, and unlikely to ever get it back. If you didn’t know where the sound was coming from, you’d assume someone had given a very stoned hippy a child’s recorder.

The music is most definitely best heard from a distance. It is a very distinctive sound though, and I’d be sorry to see it disappear from the streets of DF. What these guys need are a skilled tuner and some new songs programmed in. I can think of a few which might work. Strawberry Fields would go down a bomb in this Beatles mad city. The Alabama Song by the Doors is another candidate. Any other suggestions?


12 thoughts on “The Sound of the City

  1. I hate the organ grinders…liked them at first, but it became a total bore quickly. Now, if there were a little monkey in a fez cap brandishing a tin cup for handouts, I’d love it.

    Every neighbourhood has its characteristic slate of sounds. I can close my eyes and just listen as the knife sharpeners comes by whistling his services. The tamales oaxaquenos you mentioned are another. The camotes vendor wheeling around that boiler and letting the whistle rip at ear-splitting volume, usually on Sundays and very late.


    • I’m not sure I’d go so far as hating them….but they sure can be irritating. Both the noise and the caps being thrust in your face. I understand that this is how money collection is done, but it’s still annoying! I’m always far more likely to give when I’m not being pressured into it.


  2. Kim G says:

    I find these Harmonipans fascinating. I’m not sure it’s only a question of tuning, though. Has anyone ever heard one play a recognizable tune? To me it sounds like the works are so seriously screwed up that they simply play random notes.

    I’d love to get my hands on one, though. It’d be fascinating to tune it up and get it to play something interesting. Like “Hello Dolly” or “Chiapanecas.”


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where our neighbors are no doubt glad they can’t hear us practicing the accordion.


    • Funny you should ask if anyone has ever heard a recognisable tune….a couple of weeks ago I heard one blaring out Cielito Lindo. And actually in tune. I initially thought this was something new. It’s not of course, and since then I’ve caught a few notes of that song inbetween the indistinct wails that are the norm. I have a sneaky feeling that some of these organ grinders are just not putting enough elbow grease into their grinding….


  3. I’ve collected sounds of the announcements (usually prerecorded on tape) of the various trucks that ply the countryside near our rancho. I just about have the ¡Naranjas dulces! one memorized. It’s easier to remember than the “Señora, ama de la casa, aquí viene Gas del Lago.” Some, however, are fuzzy and unintelligible; the camas guy, for example.

    Maybe I’ll work on uploading them. Unfortunately, the video part is extremely boring, despite the more interesting audio, so it’s questionable if the can be uploaded.

    Don Cuevas


    • Did you catch the sounds on a camera? Why not just strip the video and keep the audio? Then upload it as an audio file, or perhaps make a video from the recordings and photos. It’s a cool sounding project.


  4. Michael Wolf says:

    For me, it’s the guy who tools around my colonia with a wheelbarrow shouting “abinga dinga beeeeennnnga.” After asking around, I learned that he’s (probably) trying to say “hierro viejo que vendan.” But you wouldn’t know it, because he really does say “abinga dinga beeeeennnnga.”

    Runner up: the plane that circles around here, mostly on weekends, blaring a recording loud enough to be a real nuisance and distraction, but not clear enough to be understood.

    If you ask me, antagonizing your potential customers without even making them properly aware of what you’re offering is pointless, but what do I know?


    • Lol! We have a few street vendors who stroll past at various times of day shouting out their slogans. And most of them do sound like a random and meaningless concoction of consonant and vowels.

      Ah…customer service. More on that tomorrow.


      • Michael Wolf says:

        There’s also a guy in Metro Taxqueña who shouts “Eeeeeeeeaap.” He sounds like like either some strange, demented bird or else a member of Collective Soul (listen to the prechorus in their song “Shine”).

        Eventually I managed to zero in on the noise and figured out that he’s selling the Metro newspaper, and was originally saying “mEEEEEEEEtro” until the “m-” and the “-tro” atrophied.

        But he’s in a bustling public space. He doesn’t bother people in their own homes, so it bothers me a lot less. (Although, yes, it still does bother me.)


        • Taxqueña has a few characters. There used to be an obscenely obese chap there early in the mornings calling out bus routes in a voice that made Barry White sound positively high pitched. He was always leaning on a trash can and looking thoroughly hung over and on the verge of death. He probably was. I haven’t seen him in ages.


  5. Obet says:

    I was travelling today in the metro and suddenly I began thinking about this post. The oficial selection for the Mexico City’s sound should be extracted from the metro. All the noises and sounds mentionated can be founded on the rest of the country.


    • I did think of the metro, but…I’ve always kind of thought of the metro as being a city within a city. A ‘metropolis’ in its own right. It has everything. Art, work, restaurants etc etc. You could live i the metro system and never need to come out!


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