He’s the Brusque Mr. Fix-It for Mexico City’s Accordions

Your accordion is a worthless hunk of junk. Said Francisco Luis Ramrez, shaking his head. My grandfather had seen enough of the dirty instrument I brought into his workshop. A real pig! Nothing I do will help. I suppose I could, but it would be more cost-effective if you just bought a newer, fancier one.

He extinguished his cigarette and reached for an accordion on the wooden table next to him. The object was big, bright white, and shining. I’ve never seen an accordion before. Italian-made. Listen.”

When he started playing, the small, dim room was instantly filled with dense, resonant tones. I took at my surroundings and noticed that the white walls were lined with shelves full with the carcasses of his labour from the preceding fifty years: wooden housings, drooping bellows, and broken keyboards that resembled crooked fangs. Everything in the room reeked of stale glue, musty wood, and cigarette smoke.

The workshop of one of the city’s oldest and most revered accordion repairmen was located here, in a side office up the stairs of a nondescript building hidden away in the heart of the city near a block of showy music businesses that used thumping loudspeakers to lure clients.

Ramrez, who is now 76 years old, often boasts, “Everything I do is to increase the sound.” It’s true that “I’m a technician, always refining, always refining.”

For nearly half a century, he has been visited by musicians (mariachis, norteos, buskers, and maestros) who tenderly cradle their broken instruments like infants. Famous musicians like Los ngeles Azules, Los Rieleros del Norte, Los Tigres del Norte, and Mon Laferte have all relied on him for repairs.

Unlike these musicians, I am not one of them. But a few years ago, I’d decided I wanted to learn to play the accordion. A variety of migrations, both forced and voluntary, have spread various adaptations of the instrument to cultures all over the world from Europe, where the first version was invented in the early 1800s.

Therefore, I had Spent My Entire Life Surrounded by its Charms:

My maternal grandparents, originally from Jewish Iraq, spent many years listening to Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum’s Arab orchestras in America, where they now live. My Argentinean grandpas, who grew up listening to the sad tangos of Anibal Troilo and Carlos Gardel, still spend their days with a lovely bandoneon.

Songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Oh, Susanna!” played on an old-fashioned folksy squeezebox were a defining feature of my own suburban New York City upbringing. There were times when I pondered how a single instrument could produce such contrastingly happy and sorrowful tones.

The rural Texas borderlands, where Germanic migrants settled in the 19th century, were largely responsible for the accordion’s now-ubiquitous influence in Mexico; even today, certain norteo styles can easily pass for waltzes or polkas, and the sweet, meandering melodies have bled into banda, corridos, and cumbia.

In Mexico City, mariachis serenade restaurant patrons while accordions play on the radio in cabs. It seems that the streets, with their smoky boulevards, lush plazas, and bustling market stalls selling everything from roasted corn and leather bags to coffee served in enormous clay pots, are the best places to hear them.

Because of My Lack of Formal Music Training, I had No Notion What to Look for.

The music stores (casas de msica) that displayed shiny new accordions in glass cases all told me that I would have to hunt for a used instrument if I wanted to stay within my budget. And on Tuesdays in a district in the south of the city called Tasquea, you’d find the best flea market in all of Mexico devoted to used music.

There is a weekly gathering in Tasquea of about a hundred musicians from the Mexican Union of Music Workers, the Sindicato nico de Trabajadores de la Msica, who set up their stands along a service road for long-distance buses pulling into the city’s southern bus terminal, their music rising above the rumble of diesel coaches en route to Oaxaca or Cuernavaca.

Clarinets, tubas, trombones, cowbells, güiros, tambourines, vihuelas, ukuleles, 12-string guitars, and, of course, accordions can all be found at the Tasquea bazaar on the correct day. All accordions, forever. Accordions range in size from those designed for toddlers to those that are larger than adults. There are several different kinds of accordions, including button accordions, piano accordions, and even bandoneons.

On this particular morning, there was an elderly couple at the end of the street who were in charge of a collection of multicoloured, medium-sized accordions spread out on the grass. There was a white Volkswagen buggy truck next to them on the road, its doors wide open to reveal even more instruments inside.

In a pre-pandemic surprise, I haggled with a man who looked unwell and was wearing a surgical face mask, and I walked out of the store with a red accordion in a worn wooden case, beaming with joy. Over the course of the transaction, I spent just over $100.

After two years and a global epidemic, I was relieved to discover that he was still there. The dusty accordions from which he had taken keys and parts still sat on shelves in the room’s shadowy corner. When I walked in, there were two smouldering cigarette ends in his round ashtray; he smoked three more in that time.

During the course of our chat, two males and a group of teenage lads entered the room. They took the camouflage cover off of a black Farinelli accordion. Ramirez picked it up and started playing around with the notes right away.