Flemish pop and rock are flourishing – Idiosyncratic Flanders

The Belgian record labels are increasingly looking for home-grown talent and are providing the appropriate financial support. Hence the results: recent Cds by dEUS, Zita Swoon, Soulwax, and Nova Star reached gold, while the folk-trio Laïs even made platinum with a totally unreleased and not even heavily promoted CD brimming with a-capella singing.

20000600_flanders1In the 50s, when Elvis Presley flavoured his Swing music with a good dose of black Blues and as such set the rock ‘n’ roll ball rolling, Flanders was not part of the game. In those days records were not such big business and pop music was hardly played on the radio. At the very most there were a few copycats, such as Burt Blanca, who made a brief appearance. And some, like The Cousins and The Jokers, even enjoyed some international success. But after that, Flemish pop and rock really did begin to make headway. Each time a new style of music was bon in England or America, someone in Flanders got up and copied it. These were either close copies or more individualized versions and were sung in Dutch. And at the same time a number of people were learning more about the music industry – how to record a song, how to develop a music career, how to organize a festival. It was a matter of learning through trial and error, something very typical for a small region.
The 70s saw the beginning of a new trend, in which a number of individual artists sought to create a musical experience that increasingly bore the characteristics of Flanders. Central figures in this were Raymond Van het Groenewoud and Johan Verminnen. The first mixed rock with a refined taste for a wide variety of different tunes. The second is a child of the French chanson. And here we touch on the first of the idiosyncrasies of Flanders: this small region forms the dividing line between the Germanic and Romance cultures. And this brings with it peculiarities that its neighbours still find surprising even though they know Flanders well. Dutch singer Herman Van Veen explains: ‘When you are traveling up from the South your are said to be driving to ‘Mons’, whereas if you travel down from the North, your are going to ‘Bergen’. Why give this town a French and a Dutch name; why not just call it one thing?’ Van Veen believes that the Flemish have invested in their language but have forgotten to invest in simple practical solutions. Being Flemish in Belgium, therefore, is a quite unique condition, affording a separate status. This ambivalence brought about by living in a country where two major cultures come head to head is something the Flemish cherish. To the Dutch the Latin world begins in Brussels (Brussel) and to the French this is where the North, in other words the Germanic world begins. And this inevitable gives rise to a second, even more typical characteristic, which is that the Flemish produce slightly surrealistic music. Although this only really manifested itself in the 90s.

A wave of home-grown talent
In the 60s and 70s were copycat decades – first a Flemish imitation of Flower Power followed by a Flemish version of British punk – this copycat style gradually began to give way to more original work in subsequent years. Furthermore the 80s brought the first fruits of all the toiling of the preceding twenty years. The infrastructure had developed, more and more pop music was being played on the radio, and the record companies were beginning to stir. Indeed in the 90s an ever-growing – and at that point booming – wave of Flemish talent was emerging, helped along by a number of contributing factors. The first of these fit into the socio-political sphere. The rising profile of the European Union has led to individuals and peoples all over Europe to value and endorse their ‘own’ culture. Added to that is the abolition of national service a few years ago, which now allows bands to stay together longer. Countries also increasingly began to support culture as a whole. And so the breeding ground developed. The other contributing factors are attributable to the advances in technology. The emergence of digital language and the CD, of the Internet and the CD-R (which means that Cds can now be copied on a large scale within the home environment) led to a major crisis in the industry and new opportunities for the musicians. Today home studios are commonplace and record companies prefer to support local artists – who are easier to manage – rather than those from abroad. And within this context much has become possible. The Belgian record labels are increasingly looking for home-grown talent and are providing the appropriate financial support. Hence the results: recent Cds by dEUS, Zita Swoon, Soulwax, and Nova Star reached gold, while the folk-trio Laïs even made platinum with a totally unreleased and not even heavily promoted CD brimming with a-capella singing.

20000600_flanders2A character of its own
What is most remarkable about the Flemish music scene in the 90s is the realization that Flemish pop and rock music seems to have a character all of its own. Abroad it is referred to as an individual style, the ‘typical Belgian approach’. The Flemish are surrealists, a bizarre crowd who cannot do anything according to the rules of the commercial game. And this is why the Flemish music world is so intriguing amidst a landscape where uniformity rules.
Arno Hintjens, born in Oostende but resident in Brussels, has been a significant figure in this. With his band TC Matic, Hintjens launched the concept of ‘European music’. He grafted Blues from the US onto other unexpected styles of music, recorded his songs with an industrial sound, and was looked upon by many as a shining example. To say that he has played a pioneering role in the Flemish music industry is by no means an exaggeration.
The minus point, however, is that Flemish pop and rock music is rarely sung in the artists’ mother tongue. With the exception of folk music and older vocalists such as Van het Groenewoud, most new young bands sing in English. To ask about the significance of language in Flemish pop and rock music is an anachronism in itself, and here again Flander’s penchant for surrealism manifests itself. It comes as no surprise therefore, that quite a number of bands make a fairly absurd and largely incomprehensible whirligig of their lyrics.

Ready to take on the world
There are many in Flanders who are surprised at the dynamic nature of Flemish music. There is even a hint of chauvinism in the air, which is a fairly unusual emotion in Flanders. Flemish bands form well over a quarter of the total annual sales and are no longer given the low billings in festivals. Indeed last summer dEUS topped the bill at Beach Rock, one of the largest rock festivals in Flanders.
But the Flemish artists who make it big in the international scene remain few. K’s Choice enjoyed a brief spell of success in America with the song ‘Not An Addict’ and dEUS has acquired a solid position in the alternative European rock scene. And in the Netherlands of course, Flemish bands are welcomed with open arms; they are neighbours after all. In the major markets, however, i.e. Japan, Germany, France, the US, and the UK, Flemish music is falling on deaf ears at the moment.
So that is the challenge for the coming years. After forty years, the Flemish music industry has become a highly professional and individualistic environment. The time is now ripe for a Flemish act to make the covered breakthrough to world success and to carry the rest of the Flemish music scene in its wake. This could be Nova Star, Soulwax, Hooverphonic, or Laïs. A great deal o work is being done by all concerned.

© Peter Vantyghem (Arts Director for De Standaard)
© Photographs Alex Vanhee

Flanders20000600flanders_1, issue 46 – June 2000

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