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

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.