Flašinet žije! Or why barrel organs are a grind (in a good way)

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová, Czech Radio

Barrel organ players and street artists from the Czech Republic and beyond gathered in Prague earlier this month for the annual festival Flašinet žije! (The barrel organ is alive!), organised by the National Museum. I went along to talk to some of the organ grinders to learn more about the history of the mechanical instrument and their passion for it.

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio
A barrel organ, also known as a crank organ, is a mechanical musical instrument made of bellows and one or more ranks of pipes, all typically housed in a whimsical, wooden case.

The first known flašinet appeared in the Czech lands in 1845, and comes from Chrastava, in northern Bohemia. Many of the organ grinders were disabled veterans of the Austro-Hungarian army, who also served as tobacconists on wheels.

As for the organs themselves, the older models play pieces of music encoded onto wooden ‘barrels’ at a tempo determined by the person turning a crank. Newer models use perforated music rolls made of paper.

Either way, it’s all in the wrist – and of course in the showmanship of the street performer.

“I’m quite interested in old clocks and watchmaking. So, it’s quite close also to musical machines.”

Patrik Pařízek is a barrel organ player, music historian and card-carrying member of the Czech Association of Friends of the Flašinet and Mechanical Music. I asked him how he got interested in the instrument.

“Five years ago, I started getting interested in them and put together an exhibition about barrel organs in the Czech Republic. It was held in many cities. Now, the exhibition of mechanical music is in Polná, near Jihlava.

Patrik Pařízek,  photo: Archive of Partrik Pařízek
And this is your instrument here?

Yes. You can see how it looks inside, here is the wooden barrel with metal pins, and by moving the handle, you pump the air inside the instrument, and underneath are some reeds, like in a harmonium. You’re playing on these reeds, which are vibrating.

It’s quite a small one, very portable. How old is it?

“It’s from the 1920s. It was used on the streets. You could play only six songs.”

And these are the original cylinders, or ‘barrels’?

“Yes. It’s completely original. We just put here a new label with the songs, because some are not so famous. “We had to search quite a lot.”

I understand that you are a historian of music. What is your specialty?

“My specialty is mechanical musical instruments.”

Do you know when barrel organs first appeared here in the Czech lands, or were first made here?

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio
“Some first examples, from central Europe, are from the 17th century. But in this country, in the Czech lands, they were most popular in the 19th and early 20th century.”

And during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ex-soldiers, who had lost an arm or leg, were given barrel organs to help them make a living.

“Yes. They could borrow these organs from cities or pay a small down payment and over time buy an organ for themselves. But they were quite expensive, so normally they just borrowed the instrument, made money to eat, for basic things, and then return it to the city hall.”

So, these ex-soldiers had an exclusive right to play them?

“Yes. When the soldier had some injury and was not able to make a living doing normal work, they lent him the organ.”

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio
How many of them do you have yourself?

“Me? I have a larger one which is not just reeds but also pipes, but it’s not here because it’s quite complicated to bring to a concert.”

Of the examples here today in the St. Mikuláš Church, which do you find the most exciting from the perspective of a historical of mechanical music.

“The most exciting here is one from the National Technical Museum. It plays from a barrel and it’s a two air instrument, so it’s quite special that we can see it in working condition. And another example is from Germany – we have here the ‘Rolls Royce’ of mechanical music. It can play I think six airs together, like a church organ. It’s very special. You have a row of pipes with different tones, and you can choose which kind you would like to use.”

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio
And there were also two men here today from Austria, playing in tandem on different machines. Is that unusual?

“Yes. Very unusual. One is also making the instruments that he plays, and they are able to play it together, using the same rolls. It’s very complicated”

Half of that unusual duo which the music historian Patrik Pařízek was speaking of is the Austrian organ grinder and mechanical instrument maker Christian Wittmann. He creates new plastic-coated paper spools of music with holes punched into them using a computer programme, instead of the original carved wood cylinders.

“Most rolls have three or four pieces, and the total music playing time of the roll is about 10 minutes, which is about 40 metres of music roll. It takes more than a day to punch all of the holes because I think there are more than a hundred thousand in a music role.

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio
“I make these rolls myself. I have to make these rolls because it’s a new organ scale with 44 notes, and you can’t buy them from other music roll manufacturers.”

“I also build street organs, either with music rolls or electronic controls. But the sound is produced with pipes, or with drums, percussion and so on.”

How did you get started with barrel organs?

“It was very early in my youth. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I met the first street organ player, at a Christmas market. I was very interested and he let me play it. It was exciting for me. Then I got interested in mechanical instruments and started building organs as a hobby, and then as a profession.”

And how long did it take to create this barrel organ in front of us here?

“Well, this one with a 44 note scale and three pipe stops takes about 400 hours in the workshop.”

And what would it sell for?

“About 20,000 euros with the cart.”

“Hmm. Maybe next Christmas.

Rastislav ‘Rastko’ Tepina,  photo: YouTube
I next spoke to the president of the European Association of Organ Grinders, a professional theatre actor who finished his raucous performance with a fist pump and a resounding ‘Yes!’ He’s a fixture on the barrel organ circuit in this country, having also performed in Liberec, Brno and Pekařovice in the Jeseníky Mountains.

“I’m Rastislav ‘Rastko’ Tepina from Slovenia. At home, I have five barrel organs. And I’ve been playing this organ grinder for about 35 years. And now my favourite festival now is here, in Czechia.”

Why is that? What makes it special?

“Many reasons. Firstly, the Czechs are very good people, and they like these organs and this music. The second reason is the beer. The third reason is good food. The fourth reason is the beautiful Czech women. And I think that’s enough!””

Photo: National Museum
I wanted to ask about the feeling you get when you play. It seems to me that turning the crank is almost a mind of meditation…

“It’s hard work for the arm. But in the mind, it’s acting. Like with the theatre, you must have the feeling in your soul and contact with the public.

I noticed that you were quite animated – you really put your body into it, almost like you were dancing. And at the end you gave out a big ‘Yes!’

“Yeah, yeah – this ‘Yes!’ is the end. My work is done.”