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Amsterdam street organs leave the street for the museum

Love it or hate it, the sound of street organs belongs to Amsterdam as much as the city’s canals and its liberal attitude.

Tourist for years to come will still have the opportunity to see and hear street organs in action. But as Radio Netherlands reports, the collection of famous organs belonging to an Amsterdam family whose name has almost become synonymous with the life-sized musical instruments, has been moved to Utrecht:

The National Museum From Musical Clock To Street Organ located in Utrecht has managed to acquire some new jewels to its collection. The Perlee family in Amsterdam are sad to say goodbye to their famous collection of street organs but glad that the collection will at least stay together.

Street organ plays, “Mooi Amsterdam” (Beautiful Amsterdam)

Street organs are a distinctive part of Dutch street culture, even today they can often be heard, although they are more likely to be blaring out pop tunes rather than the more traditional melodies. It’s true that in Amsterdam the organ tends to attract a more appreciative audience from tourists rather than locals.

Family Business since 1875

The oldest street organ rental company in the country is located in Amsterdam’s most characteristic old city-centre neighbourhood, the Jordaan. The company has been run by the Perlee family there since 1875.

Sadly, due to waning public interest, these days the family’s street organs are more commonly heard at fairs and village fetes as opposed to the traditional Amsterdam street corner.

As a result the Perlee family have decided to shift the focus of their business to restoring organs. They have also made the difficult decision to pass on their magnificent collection to the museum.


The sale was an emotional experience for the Perlees, and tears were shed when the twelve street organs, bearing famous names like “The Arab” and “The Three Wigs” left their Amsterdam home.

Luckily for the Perlees their precious organs are still within reach; a crucial part of the agreement allows them to borrow back their instruments should they simply get ‘the urge’, or if a village fete needs jazzing up with a world-famous street organ.

“The Arab”

One of the organs which has found a new home in the museum is the most famous street organ in the Netherlands – “The Arab”. Apart from street organs the museum houses a wide variety of mechanical musical instruments ranging from carillion bells to pianolas.

“The Arab” takes its name from the exotic paintings that decorate its sides, its success in the Netherlands and abroad has made it a national symbol of Dutch street organ culture. It has even been mentioned in songs by well-known Dutch artists Wim Kan and Wim Sonneveld and has made regular television appearances. Over the years the Perlees have customised the organ to give it a distinctive sound.

The Council For Culture made this comment:

“In the twentieth century the Netherlands became world famous for its street organs. This was chiefly thanks to the unprecedented flourishing of the street organ – virtually unknown in other countries. Street organs here owe their success to the development in the early part of the last century. It is an entirely Dutch phenomenon. The rental companies, who have purchased and maintained the organs have ensured the spread of street organs throughout the Netherlands.”

– Source: Michael Blass, Radio Netherlands, May 23, 2008

In the good old days, street organs were hand-powered. The operators would take turns cranking the big wheel that ran the machine. In later years, most street organs added small gas-engines to do the job — causing purists to stop donating their small change, remarking something like, “No. I only give to real ones.”

No respect

Unlike many Amsterdam travel guides, the Lonely Planet Guide did have something to say about street organs — and well under the heading, “How to Murder Music: Street Organs & Carillons.”

Street organs and carillons are to the Dutch what bagpipes are to the Scots, and they elicit the same mixed feelings.

The elaborate street organs (draaiorgels, literally barrel organs), developed from hand-held barrel organs that were once popular throughout Europe but have now all but disappeared. Their atrocious tuning and repetitive repertoire contributed to their demise: people tended to pay organ grinders to stop rather than continue.

One of the factors that ensured their survival in the Netherlands was a leasing system established in Amsterdam in 1875: grinders leased their organs from owners who looked after maintenance and tuning, which ensured reasonable standards upheld by strict licensing laws. Even today, grinders are assigned limited hours in particular areas of the city so they are evenly distributed, and they can spend five minutes on the same spot before having to move on.

The reportoire includes anything from Tulips from Amsterdam and The Blue Danube to wacky renditions of the latest hits. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity still play havoc with tuning, sometimes resulting in a cat’s-wail effect. Is it music? Who know, but most will agree that a street organ at full tilt is a pretty impressive bit of machinery.
– Source: Lonely Planet: Amsterdam, 3rd edition, page 104. Get the current edition of Lonely Planet, Amsterdam

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