MEXICO CITY — “Your accordion is a piece of garbage.” Francisco Luis Ramírez shook his head. The old man was carefully inspecting the dusty instrument that I’d brought to his workshop, and he had seen enough. “Una porquería! I cannot fix this. Well, I could, but it would make more sense for you to buy a better one.”
He put down his cigarette and picked up another accordion that was sitting on his wooden worktable. It was large and white and shiny. “Now, this is an accordion. Italian-made. Listen.”
He began to play, and suddenly, thick-sounding notes filled the small, dark room. I looked around: All along the white walls were shelves crammed with skeletons from the past half-century of his work: wood casings, sagging bellows, and mangled keyboards that looked like irreparably crooked teeth. The room itself smelled like a mix of cigarette smoke, musty wood and drying glue.
Here — in a side office, up the stairs of an unmarked building hidden away on a block of the city center jammed with flashy music stores that used thumping loudspeakers to attract customers — was the workshop of one of this city’s oldest and most venerated accordion repairmen.
“Everything I do is to improve the sound,” Ramírez, now 76, likes to say of his work. “I’m a technician, always refining, always refining.”
Day after day, for nearly 50 years, he has been visited by musicians — mariachis and norteños, buskers and maestros — gently cradling their injured instruments like small children. He has done repairs for performers as famous as Los Ángeles Azules, Los Rieleros del Norte, Los Tigres del Norte and Mon Laferte, among many others.
I am not one of these musicians. But a few years earlier, I’d decided I wanted to learn to play the accordion. Though the earliest iteration of the instrument was invented in Europe in the early 1800s, migrations both forced and voluntary brought different versions to cultures around the world.
As a result, all my life I’d grown up around its enchantments: In America, my maternal grandparents, Jewish Iraqis to their core, long listened to the accordions in Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum’s Arab orchestras and recalled the worlds they left behind. My abuelos, born and raised in Argentina, still spend their days in the company of the similarly sweet bandoneon, a fixture of the melancholic tangos of Aníbal Troilo and Carlos Gardel.
My own childhood in the New York suburbs was marked by the old-time folksy squeezebox singalongs of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Oh, Susanna!” I often wondered how a single instrument could sound, from one moment to the next, so joyous and then so sad.
Most of the accordion’s now-widespread influence in Mexico came down from the rural Texas borderlands, where Germanic migrants settled in the 19th century and brought their music with them; still today certain norteño styles can easily pass for waltzes or polkas, and the sweet, rambling melodies have bled into banda, corridos and cumbia, too.
In Mexico City, you hear accordions on the radio in taxicabs and at restaurants where mariachis serenade diners. But more than anywhere, it seems, you hear them in the streets: along the smog-filled boulevards and in the leafy, cobblestone plazas and between the noisy market stands of vendors hawking roasted corn and leather knapsacks and coffee from large clay pots.
My problem, as quite the uneducated accordionist, was that I had precisely no idea what I was looking for. All of the casas de música, which sold new accordions that glistened in glass cases, said that to come across one in my price range — which was not high — I would have to look secondhand. And that the best secondhand music market in Mexico was on Tuesdays in a neighborhood in the south of the city called Tasqueña.
Each week in Tasqueña, some 100 musicians from the Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Música (the Mexican Union of Music Workers) line up their stands along a service road for long-distance buses pulling into the city’s southern bus terminal; the sounds of buzzing snares and tuning guitars echo over the grumble of diesel coaches bound for Oaxaca or Cuernavaca.
There doesn’t seem to exist an instrument that can’t be found, on the right day, at the Tasqueña bazaar: I’ve seen clarinets and tubas and trombones, cowbells and güiros and tambourines, vihuelas and ukuleles and 12-string guitars, and, of course, accordions. Endless accordions. There are tiny accordions meant for children, and large accordions wider than children. There are button accordions and piano accordions and sometimes even bandoneons, too.
At the end of the block that particular morning was an older couple who presided over a few colorful, medium-size accordions laid out in a patch of grass. On the road beside them was a white Volkswagen buggy truck with its doors splayed open and more instruments inside. I haggled with a sickly-looking man who wore a surgical face mask (this was surprising, in prepandemic times), and a few minutes later I left, beaming, with a red accordion in an old wooden case. I’d paid just over $100.
“You’ve been taken for a ride.”
Ramírez did not beat around the bush. In this way, with an accordion needing help, I first found myself in his musty old shop in 2019, and he spent most of our time simply surveying the damage. Recently I went back to visit him again, more interested this time in learning about his life and craft than in procuring his services.
Two years had passed and a pandemic had torn through the world and I was glad to see that he was still there. The skeleton accordions, from which he pulled spare keys and parts, were still collecting dust on shelves in the darker half of the room. Two cigarette butts smoldered in his round ashtray when I arrived, and he added three more in as many hours while I was with him.
During our conversation, two men appeared at the door, accompanied by several teenage boys. They revealed a black Farinelli accordion in a camouflage bag. Immediately Ramírez took it in his hands and began to test the notes.
“There’s lots of air leaking out,” he explained to the men, pointing at the accordion’s bellows. “It sounds ugly. We need to fix that sound.” He put the instrument on his table and, with a pair of silver pliers, plucked out the thin nails that held the casing together. The bass side came apart first. “Oh, it’s all messed up. We’ll have to fine-tune it, change the reeds, so that it sounds like a real accordion.” He closed it back up.
“And how much?” one of the men asked timidly.
“For everything, 3200 pesos,” Ramírez replied. Not much more than $150. “It will be like new, better than new.” He took down another accordion from his shelf to play a few notes, to show the musicians what theirs could sound like if they entrusted him with it.
“Agh,” one of the boys in the back whispered to another. “It’s beautiful.”
The older men, clearly the leaders of the group — Los Principes del Bolero, they said, handing me their card — looked at each other for a moment. The price was good. They would return in an hour for a tuneup, enough to get them through their next gig, and bring it back for the full repair, which would take a week.
To fix the troubled keys that no longer made sounds, Ramírez replaced their corresponding metal reeds on the interior voice box. To each new note he applied a hard blue wax, which he’d boiled in a small blue pot on a portable electric stove beside him, and a tiny, thin piece of film. With an electric soldering iron he melted the wax, a strong adhesive, and a weak smoke rose from the wood.
“Now for the moment of truth.” He brought the voice box up to his mouth and blew into each new note like playing the harmonica, making a few adjustments as he went. Then he screwed the voice box back into the accordion, closed it up, played some major chords. The sound was noticeably fuller, sweeter.
“Good,” Ramírez smiled. “I just made 750 pesos.” He cracked open a Coke and lit another cigarette.
Throughout the day, the pleasant sound of accordion music wafted through the halls of the building.Most of the time it was not coming from Ramírez’s room but from the one next door. As it turns out, to celebrate 50 years on the job, Ramírez had recently retired, working now mostly for pleasure and handing the reins of the business to his son.
Over the course of his career, Ramírez took on many apprentices — “Here, accordion repair schools don’t exist,” he said — but none of them has made him prouder than Luis Adrián Ramírez, a professional accordion player who, not long after learning the trade from his father, joined him at Servicio Ramírez Acordeones, making it a business of two and extending the generational line of a family deeply rooted in the musical traditions of the Americas.
“My abuela was a piano teacher; she lived for music,” Ramírez recalled. “That’s where our musical abilities come from.” His father, who never learned music as a child, later in life picked up instruments and started playing them almost immediately. “That’s where our musical sensibilities come from.”
For Luis Adrián, inheriting the family business has been a long time in the making. “I’ve been working with him since I was 12 years old,” he said of his father. “It is an honor.”
For the elder Ramírez, the technicalities of music have been the biggest draw. “I’ve always been more interested in fixing accordions than playing them,” he said.
Nearly 50 years of work has given him plentiful resources. When he was just starting out, and couldn’t buy the right parts, he improvised by extracting metal pieces from shoe heels and book bindings. From under a thin blanket on his shelf, next to some felts and skins and leathers, he pulled out loose sheets of yellowing paper — hand-drawn diagrams of all the different possible chromatic tunings of an accordion.
People still send him instruments from other countries — Colombia, Guatemala, the United States — to be tuned, tweaked or overhauled. For a time, years ago, he used to make house calls to faraway states and remote pueblos, often carrying his tools on muleback, up foggy hills and along craggy creeks swelled with rain. “These were communities that didn’t have electricity in those days,” he said. “They did things by candlelight, but they had accordions.”
At this stage in life, he said, he’s happy the business has taken a back seat. “I just like to do good work,” he said. If a young person comes in, or someone just barely scraping by, sometimes he won’t charge them at all. “You always have to return an instrument better than when you got it.”
Jordan Salama is the author of “Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena,” which chronicles a journey along Colombia’s greatest waterway.