Folk & World Music in Flanders

author: Marc Vandemoortele, september 2013

 'k Voel me 't beste in een straat, /  I feel best when I'm out in the street
tussen menselijke kleuren, / Among human colours
tussen kommer en jolijt, / Between sorrow and joy
en demonen die me sleuren  / And the demons that drag me
langs de wegen van den tijd, / Along the roads of time
totdat woorden en gedachten / Until words and thoughts 
onverbiddelijk vergaan  / Inevitably dissolve
en de kleuren van de stad niet meer bestaan. / And the colours of the city no longer exist

(De kleuren van de steden)  / (The colour sof cities)

In the autumn of 2013, the 'Groot Liedboek Wannes Van de Velde' ('Grand Wannes Van de Velde Song Book') will be published, and I intentionally refer to the man as an icon or role model in this short sketch of folk and world music here in Belgium. Wannes himself would have a rather hard time with it. He was quite a character, an academic who was labelled a folk singer, a generous warm human being who appeared rather awkward on stage, a stubborn old goat who invented his own language along with a whole universe, and who was very reluctant to be in anyone's pocket. He would certainly have uttered his objections with regard to the terms 'folk' and 'world music', but right now, this doesn't matter to me. I will, however, use him as a starting point, a singer-songwriter who adopted and adapted the many influences that blew into the port of Antwerp. I'd also like to start with Flanders:  a small region in a small European country where two different languages converge. The specifics of this situation are that it is, by default, a meeting point, a transit zone in a large international space. We are - whether we like it or not - dependent on the big boys around us, constantly subject to international impulses. Our idiosyncratic approach to this, is how we benefit from this central location, how we manage to use it to our advantage. Flanders may be small … but it is very versatile and creative. This approach also lends itself to music: the outside world recognises us through how we deal with it; Flemish or Belgian is, in the best case scenario, labelled as “an attitude”, much more so than, let's say, a specific recognisable style. 

Here too, folk music made its entrance in the seventies, a rather belated reaction to the American folk revival. Great Britain also had skiffle (a kind of folk-blues-country hybrid that harks back at early jazz styles). The starting point of the revival was, simply put, a reaction to US and British popular music. As a consequence of this Anglo-American music being the model, there was a wide interpretation of folk: it could just as well describe acoustic blues, country, skiffle, all sorts of songwriters, and was soon to be followed by folk rock, pop, alternative hippie music and other psychedelica. Back then, folk music was a sprawling American (Western) concept. On the other hand, it motivated us to start looking for comparable 'indigenous' music. A small, yet important, circuit saw the light of day, our cultural landscape before the days of youth centres, early folk clubs and all sorts of cultural associations. And, it turned out that we were pretty good at… among other things, organising festivals. It also seems that the Flemish have collecting in their genes, The Fleming loves his record collection. 

In the eighties, the cultural sector started to organise itself and, as it did, the interest in folk music dwindled. The accessible character changed, the genre seemed to encapsulate itself, and became a lot more concerned with finding its own identity and seeking its own individuality, rather than a wider framework That's what happened all over Europe. The music world split, and the genre of 'world music' (once again, a rather expansive notion) formed. In this case the global view was visibly staring everyone in the face, and also, from a marketing viewpoint, it was looking to adhere to pop music rather than folk, which seemed to have fallen from grace. 

Both sectors try to keep their noses above water alongside the official circuit, pockets of concert organisations (mostly alongside the growing festival circuit) start organising themselves in a more professional way and try to keep the club circuit, from which they originated, going. For a while, this is possibly thanks to airplay. Hence, there are two circuits, each with their own artists, stages, festivals, management and record labels. With a lot of good intentions and even more elbow grease, they, very occasionally, become commercially successful but, more often than not, they bear the scars to prove it. 

Since this millennium started, things have been going both better and worse. The good news is that all the hard preparatory work is starting to bear fruit. Work is being done, albeit in relative silence, on a more focused education. Young musicians and dancers are demanding more, and rightly so. Aside from pop and jazz tuition, there is also a demand for specific tuition in folk and world music. This creates more musical depth, in that many amateur as well as younger musicians are getting the opportunity to participate in the professional scene. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the current economic crisis is playing havoc on record labels, initially, and subsequently in a more general sense: an overabundance of music has made us lose our bearings, smaller budgets and the accessibility of technology means that everything is done on a much smaller scale, which ends up fragmenting the landscape and creating murkiness. Government cutbacks are echoed in jobs losses and that, inevitably, becomes tangible.

This creates a paradoxical situation: world music and folk seem to be getting increasingly less attention in the mainstream media, but, at the same time, it has produced fertile ground. Never before have we been so sure of the how's and what's: there is better tuition, better educators, the necessary documentation is there, there are good instruments and there is a decent infrastructure. 

The Internet, for a minute, seemed to offer an opportunity for increased media exposure (the website 'folkroddels' during the folk ball-rage, for instance), but it was short-lived. Social media would seem like a better promotional channel, but the question remains whether it will be sustainable in the long run.

In today's fragmented world, folk and world music are most definitely lumped in with “alternative” music genres, only very occasionally rubbing elbows with the mainstream. Some of today's organisers still resemble the same kind of enthusiastic amateurs and hobbyists, and are as obstinate as the old generations, despite there being much more structure. As far as the media are concerned, unfortunately, there really isn't much good news to report. Whereas folk and world music once seemed to be part of the fair-minded person's DNA, you'd think that nowadays, the media view them as suspicious specialisations. That's a rather ugly picture of reality: even though you can be highly specialised, it is, basically, approachable and accessible music that allows the audience as well as the practitioner to easily step in. Not to mention the multifarious public that can be reached. 

For generations, there has been a buildup of know-how. The 'missionary position' of the pioneers has evolved into a mature view of what's possible with folk music (a contemporary way of dealing with musical practice or themes from the past) and world music (musical meetings that follow on from the modern world, or importing music from elsewhere, as well as a Western adaptation of it). 

The main issue is how this is sold to the government, the media managers and the sponsors. Both genres kind of like cultivating their alternative status, but in these economically sensitive times, lobbying is essential. As much as the media format everything, there is the overriding sense that it should be shouted from the rooftops: a diversified musical offer is not an unnecessary luxury. There is work to be done here; it is, after all, all about the colour scheme…

What's astonishing, at least with two of the big festivals, is that Sfinks Mixed opted for a free festival after having lost its government funding and that Dranouter  Festival is veering back towards folk music, with a plethora of local artists and a new stage for young talent. 

A handful of meetings and collaborations

Meetings between musicians from across all borders are the order of the day in all genres, nowadays, even in classical music (Graindelavoix with the migrant's choir 'Muntagna Nera', for instance), jazz (Mâäk's Spirit a.o.) and pop (Zita Swoon a.o.).

A handful of exceptional names in folk and world music:

Violinist Wouter Vandenabeele has started a quartet with the Brussels-Turkish saz-player Emre Gultekin. He shares the stage with 'Peul' musicians Malick Pathe Sow of Issa Sow. He did the arrangements for a new CD with Olla Vogala, and enlisted the talents of Iraqi oud-player Elias Bachoura; he also started a band with young musicians called 'The Ghent Folk Violin Project”. Emre Gultekin reinforces the group 'La Roza Enflorese' and plays with viola da gamba-player Thomas Baeté.

'L'Orchestre International du Vetex' consists of Flemish and French musicians who have produced a CD under the guidance of Serbian accordionist Ivo Vucelja.

'La Chiva Gantina' are Colombian percussionists from Brussels and 'UTZ' is a Brazilian-Brussels combo. Tcha Limberger moved to Brussels and combines concerts with 'Waso' with his new group 'Les Violons de Bruxelles'. Dick van der Harst does his thing with a Southern-inspired brass band. Philip Masure is the axis of an international Irish group, consisting of a Brit and two Americans, 'Comas'. Jowan Merckx did the arrangements for a CD songs from Wallonia, a collaboration with singer Vincent Gregoire. 

Bart Maris of 'Think Of One' produced a CD with 'Jaune Toujours' (who occasionally also play with the Gangbé Brass Band); he also plays live with DJ's, associates with all manner of jazz groups and made a CD with cello-player Lode Vercampt. 'El Juntacadáveres', formed around the Argentinian Enrique Noviello blends rock and tango and 'La Sieste du Dromadaire' does the same with tango and African rhythms. For their last CD, 'Orquesta Tanguedia' worked with the composer Chris Carlier and also brought in a string quartet, and mandolin quartet MANdolinMAN – after a cd full of melodies collected by Hubert Boone – now plays Bossa Nova

Myrddin De Cauter makes a highly personalised version of flamenco and pianist Christian Mendoza produces very individual world music with jazz musicians. Tuur Florizoone continues to write film scores, made a CD with Marine Horbaczewski and Michel Massot, and has international ventures going on with Jörg Brinkmann and Eric Vloeimans.

One of the groups that has grown from the folk ball scene, 'Naragonia', has been around for ten years, and has been going strong ever since its inception.  'Surpluz' is one of the new names and they are diligently paving the way for those who will follow. Tom Theuns travels around with 'Aurélia' on a floating theatre stage. Wim Claeys graces the stage with a theatre programme based on the life and works of the nineteenth-century folk singer from Ghent, Karel Waeri, and does the same on CD with the help of Geert Waegeman. Aside from that he published a collection of  “songs from Ghent”. There have been publications of melodies by Kim Delcour, and Wannes Van de Velde's sheet music. 

'k Stond voor de brug van Willebroek, /  I was standing at the Willebroek bridge
'k stond geblokkeerd aan 't kanaal. /  I was stuck at the canal
'k Stond voor de brug van Willebroek, /  I was standing at the Willebroek bridge
monster van ijzer en staal. /  A monster of iron and steel
'k Zag honderden schepen passeren , /  I saw hundreds of ships go by
auf wiedersehen, how do you do? / Auf wiedersehen, how do you do?
'k Was niet op die rendez-vous, /  I wasn't at the rendez-vous
want de brug van Willebroek was toe. / Because the Willebroek bridge was closed

(De brug van Willebroek) / (The Willebroek bridge)

The 'Grand Wannes Van de Velde Songbook' is an edition by Van Halewyck and Hans Kusters Music, and is co-supported by Muziekmozaïek.