Belgium: the small country that is open to the world

Bron document:Pocket Guide to Belgium's World & Folk Music
Raadpleegbaar:in Muziekcentrum Vlaanderen (op afspraak)


Now more than ever, Belgium – despite its little size – is alive with sound, singing and music that seem to come from every horizon. It’s as if the world’s cultures enjoy meeting in this northern crossroads, readily hopping across political boundaries to turn the landscape into the home of music without borders.

This didn’t start recently. Belgium is not interested in music from different cultures simply because its fashionable or politically correct to be open to multiculturalism. The country has for a long time been a sponge, readily absorbing expressions from left and right with this generous appetite that is typical of those that like to take the time to share.

Today, the result of all these years of openness is tangible, and can be split into a few broad axes.

Local traditions

The country has not forgotten its own traditions. In the 70s, just like other countries, the revival was in full swing and curious musicians and singers went hunting for everything that still entertained each region’s old people. We soon heard instruments, repertoires, almost forgotten languages and saw dances we thought obsolete. Memory was put back in action. From the North to the South, festivals sprang up, groups and singers suddenly broke the comfortable routine of show business. Needless to say, these pioneers of folk music have moved out of the spotlight somewhat. But the young musicians have not forgotten them, and the work continues. Particularly as the revival generation has not completely disappeared. Many are still active, some in production, others in broadcasting while some others continue to sing and play.

Traditional instruments, such as the bagpipe, are still being made even for musicians thousands of kilometers away. A lot of music is still being played, danced, sung or enthusiastically taught to others. And labels such as Fonti Musicali and Eufoda have created definitive collections of records with local traditions.

So the overall consensus in the early 21st century is a positive one. There are still many groups that can pick up a violin, accordion, bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy and play tunes and dances of yesteryear in a dynamic atmosphere rather than a straight-laced context that resembles a museum showcase. Belgium’s traditional scene is alive, even kicking. Generations fall into place and there is always somewhere in the country where you can hear an instrument that reminds us of our history. We have kept our regional singers that use our own languages, from Wannes Van de Velde to Julos Beaucarne. We have kept our fiddlers that are moving the craft forward artistically, from Ambrozijn, Laïs and Kadril to Luc Pilartz and Trivelin… This is so true that each region has its sound: that of the lives of ordinary folk that inevitably can break into song.

Foreign traditions

Belgium has been living with music of the world for a long time already. Even before we began talking about ‘World Music’, our country was thrilling to the sound of singers and dancers from Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain and Greece, North Africa of course but also the Lebanon, Sardinia and beyond.

The many immigrant communities living on our soil never lost their memories! On the contrary, they preserved them particularly through musical expression that obviously helped them get through the difficulties of daily life. When a saz, tambura, mandolin or an oud could be heard at dusk, it was often in the almost anonymous confines of someone’s kitchen or a small community gathering. But little by little, we began to notice that each neighborhood boasted its little immigrant cultural centre, or a meeting hall run by Greeks, Spaniards or Moroccans.

So a multicultural society grew slowly around the awareness of all these cultural riches that are obliged to live together. Bodies were created that enabled various opportunities for the expressions to grow and spread. And Belgian musicians quickly understood that they could learn a lot from contact with this other music. Jazz, rock, traditional music… whatever; musicians began exchanging, working together, trying things. But also, more simply, letting the music that lives here express itself openly. Indeed some have become so well known that they record for prestigious labels or travel the world to share their know-how. We could mention N’Faly Kouyate, Abdelli, Mousta Largo, Mamady Keïta or Sidiki Camara…

Because we are largely talking about know-how. The world’s traditions come to Belgium to blossom, teaching us at the same time how music, singing and a repertoire that carry a feeling actually work. And many others follow, sometimes discretely but always sincerely. They include, notably, Marlène Dorcena, Imitari, Manou Gallo, Obereg, Ghalia Benali, Mahmoud Barkou, Photis Ionatos, Cheiro de choro, Grafiti, Marwan Zoueini and Ialma. They come from Haiti, Central and North Africa, Russia, Greece, Brazil, the Lebanon and Spain.

And not content to just express themselves using their own codes, they willingly hook up with Belgian musicians, occasionally or regularly, for projects that cross differences and disperse the boundaries between musical genres. A good example of this is Olla Vogala, a group that blends traditional, classical and jazz music using guests from every continent.

World Traditions

Once a country’s windows are open, the wind can at any time carry in tunes from anywhere. And as our ears are used to being open, as they are steeped in an environment of multiple cultures, this music that comes from far attracts musicians and producers towards new adventures. Like everywhere else in the world, the mermaid song is plainly heard by those that dare. And Belgians are no exception; they had the audacity and intelligence to play the role of talent scout or builders of global projects. Some have been at the basis of the world’s biggest festival network while others managed to produce the Gypsies of Taraf de Haïdouks, the Tartit Touaregs, the Gangbé Brass Band or the singing of Habib Koité and bring it to the five continents. Production, promotion and management are professions in which these Belgians that are thrilled by discovery seem to excel. They reach out to meet people, build projects, and produce records, so giving further life to musical and personal adventures that always manage to keep this healthy, friendly appetite that is so typical of Belgium. Crammed Discs, that just received the Womex Award 2004, is behind Zap Mama, Mahmoud Ahmed, Taraf de Haïdouk and Mahala Raï Banda, Zuco 103, Trio Mocoto, Bebel Gilberto… Fonti Musicali continues to offer Mamady Keïta with the best conditions for his work to reach deeper into its African soil. Contre-Jour travels the globe with Habib Koité and other talented artists. Others, many others, also work with the same conviction. Players from every musical horizon throw themselves into the same approach, meeting the guardians of traditions from near and far. This often leads to new music whose traditional elements are diluted in an original recipe that might also borrow from jazz or rock. The group Think of One is interesting as its musicians regularly work with Brazilian, Moroccan or more recently Inuit artists.

There’s no place for boredom in Belgium. Between singers such as Wannes Van de Velde and the accordionist Didier Laloy, between the word juggler Julos Beaucarne and the musical acrobats Think of One, between the Walloon blues of William Dunker and the vocal sparks of Galicia’s Ialma, between the popular violin of Luc Pilartz and the Irish reels of Shantalla, between the delicate singing of Laïs and the surprising acoustic compositions of DAAU/Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltung… the musical landscape of this tiny country is of infinite richness and disarming sincerity.

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