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Local History

The word terramaxka comes from the Maltese words kitarra magica, which means, magical guitar. In English, this instrument, is given a variety of names including, street organ, crank organ, barrel organ, fair organ and so forth. Street organs were imported in Malta from European countries such as France and Switzerland during the late nineteenth century.


A huge diversity of these organs could be found in Malta. The most common terramaxka was a very light weight organ usually hung round the neck of the busker, and rested on a small pole. These were operated using punched cards. All genres of music were played including the tango, operas, polka and waltzes. Some organs were operated by a crank turned by hand. Others were larger, usually decorated with flags and small wooden statues, these were driven by a donkey or the owner himself and attracted many young children. Similar to nowadays jukeboxes, were the coin-operated organs, called café organs, which were more commonly found in cafés and pubs popular to sailors. Finally, there were also terramaxkas found in homes of wealthy people. These organs used to be richly ornamented with gold and precious stones.

The terramaxkas were very common in the Maltese islands and were frequently exhibited to the public in local festas where the noisy bands where out of the way. Unfortunately, these marvelous instruments have long been gone, some sold to Americans and others were broken. Luckily, we have the only terramaxka left on the Maltese Islands to bring back the memories of our ancestors.

General History

In the Arab World they found writings about organs driven by waterpower which dated back to the 9th Century. in the 10th Century they came to Europe, where they found a steady place in the Christian Churches. In the 17th Century it reached its most important place, in Holland and the north of Germany (where the world's best composers where found). Business bloomed as big composers like Händel, Mozart and Haydn made music for the organ industry. Business grew even more when in 1875, in Amsterdam, some businessmen started leasing these organs. People thought it was a brilliant idea to hire these organs to make money, since they needed no investment, and repairs and maintenance was carried out for them free of charge.

In 1892 organs shifted from the cylinder system to the perforated book system. The metal cylinder system was very expensive and played for a very short time. Musical notes were pieces of metal jotting out from the cylinder and the musical note played according to where the extra piece of metal was in respect to the length of the cylinder. The length of the song was the circumference of the cylinder, as it could only go round once, and then start the same song again. The perforated book system revolutionised this idea as it was much cheaper to produce since it was made of cardboard, and it could play much longer songs (minutes as opposed to seconds). You could therefore have a much larger variety of songs which played for a very long time.

The inventor of the perforated book system was the Italian Anselmo Gavioli in 1892, hence the very first belly organs were built in Italy, then in Germany and later in the 19th Century in Paris. The big names for these organs were Gasparini, Limonaire and Frati. With these organs music became a real street culture. The whole family, including dogs and monkeys went from town to town to play music and make some money.

In Holland the real Dutch organ was called the Pierement, from the word pierewaaien (lets go party). Big names like Gijs Perlee and Carl Frei were producing organs and music like never before, which inspired even more people to lease out organs. The organ man would go round in his wooden shoes and a small collection box made of copper to collect donations.

The pierement was always standing on a cart and pulled by hand until after the second war (where it stood at a standstill) when they started using small engines to drive it from street to street.


Discover more about the history of terramaxka.

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