Gems from Antwerp pt I

In het aprilnummer van het internationaal gerenommeerde maandblad fRoots is de coverreportage volledig gewijd aan Laïs. In een artikel van vier bladzijden wordt de volledige Laïsgeschiedenis uit de doeken gedaan. Het eerste deel behandelt de eerste jaren van het trio, tot aan de grote doorbraak op Dranouter 1996.

GEMS FROM ANTWERP Part I
Having taken Flemish traditional music into the local charts and gained a national fan following, what do Lais want to do next? Make “Filthy Belgian Folk”, they confess to Hélène Rammant (photographer: Guy Kokken).

20050329_froots_001Belgium is not notorious for much. It is a modest country. Belgians are quietly proud of their crepes, fine beers, beautiful countryside, their noble history and their fully lit motorway system. For years the Cinderella of the Benelux, wedged between the ugly sisters of France and The Netherlands, has been a country of quiet confidence waiting for its day… OK, I am joking. Call it my Belgian humour. Things have changed. Belgium is a country in transformation. Its ethnic groups, both ancient and modern, are forging new identities and find themselves at the very core of the new pluralist Europe. Nothing symbolises this transformation better than the recent emergence of new avant-garde world music acts such as Think Of One, Jaune Toujours, DAAU and Gabriel Rios, several of whom have already firmly established Belgian musical credentials on the UK world music scene.
Even Belgium’s long neglected folk tradition is resurgent and at the vanguard of this renaissance is a trio called Lais. Who would have thought that three folk-song-singing school friends would transport Belgian folk music from the backwaters of Flanders to the soundstages of the world, from South Africa to Beijing?
This is the story of how three plain, modest Belgian folk singers transformed themselves into three smoking hot folk projectiles slapping into the flabby flanks of the Belgian folk scene. They are a perfect symbol of the new Belgium: bold, beautiful, irreverent, talented, iconoclastic – above all, cool – and they have blasted Belgian folk into the 21st century. All three of them are barely in their mid twenties, yet Lais are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year following the release of their third album, Douce Victime (which sort of translates as Killing Me Softly). Folk music isn’t the best selling genre in Belgium (unsurprisingly, rock/pop sells best according to my mate Sammy at EMI), yet practically anybody between the age of 15 to 60 has heard of the Lais girls which is an achievement in itself. Some claim they were single-handedly responsible for a Belgian folk revival in 1998-’99 when their single Het Smidje (The Blacksmith), an ancient Flemish melody, found its way, miraculously, into Belgium’s Radio 1 playlist without the help of a local John Peel or Andy Kershaw. Lais have proven that Belgian folk can be sexy and contemporary and have given it a new twist.
I met Jorunn Bauweraerts, Annelies Brosens and Nathalie Delcroix in Antwerp, in the café of the newly built Queen Elisabeth Hall, where they had performed a sold-out gig two days prior to my interview. The hall is situated right next to one of Europe’s finest art deco train stations and a zoo. From the café of the hall you can actually see some of the animals in their cages, feathered creatures mainlyŠ no crocs, those don’t come cheap. The sight of swans and peacocks happily parading in front of the Lais girls whose posters hang facing the zoo, couldn’t be more apt. Their concert isn’t your regular folk gig. To evoke the bohemian world of knights and maidens they not only sing and dance, but blow bubbles and parade around with their telling symbol, a toy swan that in their minds probably began as an ugly duckling.
“It’s strange we cared so little about our appearance during all these years,” muses Jorunn. “It’s only now, since we started to work on Douce Victime that we’ve started to think about our appearance and what sort of image we want to project… ” Nathalie continues: “Yes for a long time all we were concerned about was our music and how to get things right musically, so much so that we never even thought about clothes or stage appearance. Only now have we started to think about all the things that surround the music: the theatrical aspects of our shows, our clothes… it helps us to let go and to perform with more freedom.” Annelies adds: “I’ve noticed that our audience loves the fact that we’ve evolved. It’s good we are able to give them something different. Also, it’s great to see young teenage girls dress the way we do. That’s something we never had before… Lais has almost become a lifestyle now.”
Lais’ audience is clearly growing, and the fact that they are introducing old traditional lyrics and stories to a teenage audience which, if it wasn’t for them, would probably have never heard of this kind of repertoire is actually quite thrilling. They have gone as far as publishing their own 21st century songbook containing their favourite lyrics which they have rescued from old songbooks dug up in bargain bins across the country. On the cover of their book is a swan with the head of a young girl; inside it, blurry pictures of the girls temptingly-attired, and the ancient lyrics reprinted together with small drawings that hint at gentlemen’s pleasure comics…
All this gives a taste of what to expect from their concerts. On stage, all three are dressed in 1950s fitted dresses, Jorunn in white and red polka-dot, Nathalie in soft pink and Annelies in a retro flowery dress, and each of them has matched their dress with two roses, one attached to their ponytail and the other one to their chunky boots in which they jive around on stage. The girls look and act real sexy, in a Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris kind of way, except a tiny bit more bohemian and sophisticated. Their performance is carefully choreographed, they ‘catwalk’ to the front of the stage, all three in line, then stop and jerk shoulders, hold still for a moment before launching into another set of quirky moves which are lit by a giant spot that follows them around on stage. That is the only source of illumination except for the couple of flickering fairy lights that are dangling from the ceiling. It feels a bit like peeping into a puppet show, until they launch a dancing competition for the audience at which point Jorunn announces that whoever dances best can choose one of them as a prize. The audience jumps to its feet instantly and I think I can spot a few of the Think Of One guys in the front.
Their usual repertoire is made up of ancient European folk songs which they sing in a dense and rather harsh three-part harmony style, changing the instrumental background according to the needs of each song. A song in Polish is sung over a simple bass pedal which gives it a grandiose simplicity and austerity which contrast with the sprightly dance rhythms and jolly tunes of the Cajun-influenced La Plus Belle de Céans. They even sang a few country classics including Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, bringing a freshness to these well-known numbers.
The move away from their native languages is a recent development for Lais. Nathalie: “We have made a point of not singing in English for 10 years… And now that we’ve proven that we can actually do our own thing and sing our own music, there is no need to answer to anyone. We can just do what we want.”
The Lais girls were all born in small villages near Antwerp. Jorunn Bauweraerts – the lady in blue – is the folkiest of the three and responsible for bringing the trio together. When her father sent her to famous folk workshops in Gooik (near Brussels) to learn to play the violin, she took two of her school friends – Annelies and Soetkien – with her. The violin plan never materialised, but between treasure hunts and cigarette breaks, the three girls had developed a habit of singing tunes together which they encountered in the old songbooks they had picked up around the place.
“During the day we’d learn these songs and in the evenings we’d be partying with everyone else. It was great. We were teenagers, yet could stay up all night and dance as much as we wanted.” They rearranged the songs for three voices and developed a unique, very tight a cappella style of singing that soon attracted the attention of other workshop goers, amongst whom were the rock/folk group Kadril, a well established band that has been around since 1976. The cheers from the other folkies and the pat on the back from Kadril, encouraged the girls, who were still in their teens, to form a proper band.
Jorunn : “We got the name Lais from a book by Marie de France, a French writer living in England and who wrote 12 Lais which are erotic minstrel songs. Also, around that time, I went on a holiday to Wales and discovered that lais means ‘voices’ in Welsh. I already knew that lais means ‘song’ in ancient Dutch but to hear about the meaning of the word in Welsh was pretty crazy. And only a couple of years ago we discovered that Lais was also the name of a famous prostitute that lived in Greek times and apparently was very popular amongst philosophers… so perfect really!”
Jorunn is the only one who has a background in folk. By contrast Annelies’s musical training is centred on classical singing. Nathalie Delcroix, who was a school teacher before she joined Lais, tells me she listens a lot to country music but adds quickly, almost apologetically, that she “never tried to bring any of that into Lais, certainly not consciously”. The girls have slightly different tastes in music but they insist that this doesn’t cause a problem. “Each of us has been involved in other musical projects: Nathalie has sung country covers of Hank Williams and Dolly Parton with the band Jumbalaya, Annelies has worked as a vocal coach with The Fundamentals, a group of mentally handicapped artists, and I… well I’ve been dreaming of going to Mongolia and learn more about throat singing… We encourage each other to try out new things, to push back frontiers and to get more out of our voices.” Nathalie adds: ” Those excursions, outside of Lais, have given me more self-confidence and I am now much more daring as a singer.”
Lais’ first public performance took place in 1996 at Belgium’s no.1 folk festival, Dranouter Folk Festival, and it proved to be a turning point in their career. Their performance wowed the 20,000 people present who went ecstatic at the sight of three young girls singing their hearts out in an otherworldly polyphonic style. Their performance even caught the attention of country star Emmylou Harris who heard the girls backstage and left them a note saying, “To the three angel voices. Also enjoyed meeting you and hearing you sing – a lovely surprise. Wish you all the best and hope our paths will cross again.” That first Dranouter gig remains one of the highlights in their careers. “I still remember it as if it was yesterday. We were 16 to 17 and here we were playing in front of thousands of people all going crazy over us. We were awe-struck and felt something big was going on. That’s when we decided we’d jump on the train… and our train hasn’t stopped since!” says Jorunn.
After their unexpected success at Dranouter which propelled them to fame, it didn’t take long for several major record labels to approach Lais and try selling what was, and still is, a pretty unique little package. But they decided not to rush into things and refused all deals. Instead they continued touring and performing with Kadril from whom they learned the tricks and trades of the music business. “We are really lucky in a way,” considers Jorunn, “cause we started at the top, performing with Kadril, in good sounding halls and festivals. They taught us how to sound check, how to arrange songs, etc.”
Meanwhile, Soetkin, the oldest of the original three, quit the band and Jorunn had to find a replacement fast. She had heard another school friend Nathalie humming during a trip in the car and asked her whether she would like to join. Having been a fan, Nathalie was thrilled. “But it was quite daunting… I had to perform within three weeks after I joined the band!”

Article: Hélène Rammant
Photographs: Guy Kokken

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