Folk and World Music: A Small Country With a Big Heart

Auteur:Peter Vantyghem
Raadpleegbaar:in Muziekcentrum Vlaanderen (op afspraak)


‘Traditional music’, wrote Wim Bosmans in 2002 in his standard Traditionele Muziek uit Vlaanderen, ‘is dead. Modern times have literally gagged the Flemish ‘vox populi’.

Bosmans meant the following: the times when people, living in small villages and cities, had the same musical culture are over. Traditional songs and dances are therefore associated with times gone by, country fairs, goats wool socks, if not nationalist ideas.

But maybe times have just changed, because wherever you venture in Flanders, ‘the people’ are still making music. These days, they don’t pick it up from the masters, but rather at the conservatory or at art schools. The instruments are no longer the same as in the old days, and the musical genres are a lot more wide-ranging than the old Flemish styles.
That’s why we no longer speak of traditional music but rather of ‘folk’ or ‘world music’. But it’s always good to remind oneself where it all came from.
Traditional music

To delve into what is considered traditional music, you have to go back a long way, to the writings of Gruuthuuse (15th century) which contains 147 songs, among them ‘Egidius waer bestu bleven’.

The arrival of the printing press contributed to the spread of songs, such as the ‘souterliedekens’, to a wider audience. There was a rich cultural heritage of vocal and instrumental music, which led to the publication, in the 19th century, of several ‘songbooks’ by Jan Frans Willems and others. Music played an important role in the Flemish cultural emancipation and that led to the burgeoning ‘song movements’.

Traditional music, however, wouldn’t survive the 20th century. The rise of mass media, from British pop to American rock heralded a new era. Traditional music was only kept alive at folk dance parties, mostly organized by schools and youth organizations. Since then, the real traditional Flemish music is only practiced in small circles. During the sixties, only a few orchestras, such as De Vlier (later Brabants Volksorkest) and Jan Smed, kept the old Flemish music alive. Musicologist Hubert Boon even went so far as to go around the small villages in Brabant transcribing these old melodies.

‘t Kliekske also played traditional music wherever and whenever it could and its leader, Herman Dewit started a successful organization in Gooik that is still active to this day. The local music conservatory has been teaching folk music since 1998 and youngster can learn to play the bagpipes, the diatonic harmonica, the hurdy-gurdy and the hummel.

The result is that, in the past decade, more young groups have started playing traditional music again. This culminated in the successful ‘boom balls’, folk parties with live performances where young and old alike learn to dance polkas, bourrees, andros and other dance styles. The ‘Boom balls’, mainly in and around Ghent, in particular, are one of the most remarkable phenomena to hit Flemish nightlife in the past few years.
Sixties and seventies: folk

Even though traditional music was kept alive in relatively small circles, it did evolve into a genre that far surpassed the Flemish borders, in the sixties. This happened thanks to the folk music revival in the US.

After WWII, singers like Woody Guthrie and especially Bob Dylan revived old folk songs, which reflected the leftist ideals of the emerging counterculture. Their example served as an inspiration for the entire western world. The result in Flanders, was the appearance of ‘kleinkunst’, a mix of folk and French chanson, which appeared to be very popular and produced a few classics that are, nowadays, considered part of the Flemish national heritage.

Some artists in that ‘kleinkunst’-movement were closer to traditional music than others. Wannes (Wim) Van de Velde sang in his regional Antwerp dialect. This was diametrically opposed to the zeitgeist; there was a strong urge to streamline the Flemish language. Wannes sought and found his unique style, which was anything but academic. He also, like Dylan, had his own repertoire of songs, which were often laden with social criticism.

The most popular folk group at that time was Rum, with Wiet Van de Leest, Dirk Van Esbroeck and Paul Rans. They paired Flemish traditional music with jazz and British folk, had international success and were highly influential for a while.
Also in Ghent and West-Flanders, a number of singers emerged who sang in their own local dialects. Walter De Buck and Willem Vermandere have spent the last 40 years on stage, and especially Vermandere has reached a maturity that is appreciated and loved by all. Wannes, Willem and Walter (the three ‘W’s’) have left a legacy that has been picked up on by a number of younger musicians. Marc Hauman sings in his Temse dialect and is a member of Water en Wijn, Wannes Van de Velde’s folk vocal collective.

Flip Kowlier followed in Vermandere’s footsteps and sings in his West-Flemish dialect. Stylistically, however, the hip-hop influenced Kowlier is altogether a different kettle of fish, but his model is so catchy he has become one of the major influences for a true re-appreciation of ‘dialect pop’, which started in 2005 and is still going strong, with young artists like Fixkes, Mira Bertels and Hannelore Bedert.

The main difference between the traditional music of De Vlier and Jan Smed, on the one hand, and folk, on the other hand, is ambition: traditional music stuck to its Flemish roots and folk chose to open its windows to new influences and a host of different cultures. Wannes found a lot of inspiration in Greek and Spanish music, Willem Vermandere was fascinated by African and Yiddish music. The folk revival of the nineties pushed those ideas even further.
The nineties: open-minded revival

Flemish folk knew a remarkable revival throughout the nineties. The folk music courses organized in Gooik, the heart of the Flemish folk movement, attracted more young musicians every summer. Three girls, who spent a lot of their time there, were Jorunn Bauweraerts, Annelies Brosens and Soetkin Collier. The folk rock band Kadril, who kept the flame of folk alive during the preceding decade, urged them to continue developing their exceptional vocal harmonies. Laïs was born. Laïs put a contemporary rendering of Flemish folk music back on the map. Kadril played an important role in their success, as they orchestrated and arranged the first album. The trio – Nathalie Delcroix eventually replaced Collier – delved their lyrics out of old books and thus modelled their own peculiar kind of ‘close harmony’.
Apart from Laïs, the Ghent-based Ambrozijn, played an equally important role in the nineties’ folk revival. With much more experience under their belts than Laïs, these four gents focused particularly on the Flemish and French traditions, with mostly old songs (like ‘De vier weverkens’) in their repertoire. Accordionist Wim Claeys later started the ‘Boom balls’ and singer Ludo Van Deau started the Latin American inspired Bodixel. Fluxus, from Ghent, also produced a few tasty CD’s. It is quite interesting that Wouter Vandenabeele is a classically trained violinist, who evolved his folk style as a result of his many travels and collaborations. His ambitions drove him to set up his own project, Olla Vogala, exploring the links between jazz, folk, classical and exotic styles. Even though the name Olla Vogala comes from the oldest Dutch-language phrase known, the music sounds very progressive.
Folk’s success was also translated by the increased numbers and younger audience at the Dranouter folk festival. All of a sudden folk was terribly hip and despite the fact that it didn’t last all that long for the general public, it did lay the foundations for structural development. There were courses, more concerts, CD’s and a specialized record label, Wild Boar Music, run by Kadril-guitarist Erwin Libbrecht.
And now: world music

New Flemish folk music was much more progressive and preferred to call itself ‘world music’. The term is a commercial label for the explosion of popular music, which started in the mid-eighties. Suddenly, modern ethnic pop music from all over the place became the hippest thing. It wasn’t really a new thing, though. We had already had Sexteto Tango Al Sur, Wannes’ flamenco influence, and tropical hits by bands like Two Man Sound. Towards the end of the century, however, Flemish/Belgian musicians were looking further beyond their borders. The instrument use also reflected a change; the saxophone, sitar, electronic keyboards and the classic rock rhythm section got their place alongside the more typical instruments.

The most illustrious act of the nineties was Zap Mama, Marie Daulne’s Belgo-Congolese outfit. Originally she made a capella music with 5 other ladies, which mainly consisted of ad lib vocal harmonies. Zap Mama was obviously influenced by West-African Pygmy chanting. After two successful releases Daulne’s style evolved more towards soul, which was more appreciated in the US.

Flemish folk musicians soon followed suit. Olla Vogala was and is an important project that manages to pair up Middle-Eastern music with the Flemish-French style, but quite a number of other musicians also enjoyed mixing different styles. Laïs was inspired by Scandinavia and Poland, and more and more Flemish bands appeared that seemed to have more in common with world music than with Flemish folk.

Oblomow, Gerry De Mol’s group, hosts an assortment of different singers from various biotopes, the similar trait being that they all live in Belgium. Think of One, from Antwerp, specializes in blending punk rock with Brazilian and Moroccan music styles. Jaune Toujours mixes Flemish brass band music with chanson and Balkan influences alike.

Flanders is a junction for cultures and offers many options for young musicians. There’s a hip folk scene with dance styles that are once again thriving, but for those who want to be boundary breakers, it’s easy enough to break out of the Flemish mould. Orquestra Tanguedia plays the entire Astor Piazzolla repertoire, the vocal group Ialma performs Gallic music, Myrddin plays flamenco and a lot of others attempt fusions with jazz, rock and avant-garde. Singer Arno Hintjens often says: ‘We have to be a small country with a big heart’. Flanders’ future will come from its ability to cherish its own heritage and in being open to the cultural diversity that surrounds us.

(Dit artikel wordt gepubliceerd met toestemming van de auteur en de uitgever)