Sunday, September 26, 2010

An introduction to Belgian music

Belgian music is mostly unknown outside Belgium, but you can be sure that the country has its Beethovens, its Beatles and its Britneys, too.

A brief summary of Belgian music

In the 16th through 19th centuries several Belgian composers gained international fame. Arguably the greatest of these was André Grétry (1741-1813) from Liège, known for his many operas.

The most notable Belgian composer today is Wim Mertens. This is his Struggle for Pleasure, which features heavily in advertisements for Proximus, the largest telecommunications operator in Belgium.

Folk music has a strong tradition in Belgium. While traditional folk lives on through bands like Kadril, Urban Trad and Laïs, the music scene also offers the concept of kleinkunst. Originally a term describing Dutch cabaret entertainment, it is also applied to Flemish artists and groups in the singer-songwriter and folk genres who perform their songs in Dutch. Some examples are Yevgueni, Jan de Wilde, Bart Peeters, Eva de Roovere, Johan Verminnen, and Louis Neefs.

"Als Ze Lacht" ("When She Laughs") by Yevgueni, my fiancé's favorite Belgian group:

And here's Laïs' recording of "Min Morfar", a traditional Swedish song:

Jacques Brel (1929-1978) from Flanders was arguably the greatest Belgian chansonnier, and one of the biggest artists to come out of the country. His songs have been recorded by international stars such as David Bowie, Frank Sinatra and Terry Jacks. Jacks' 1974 monster hit "Seasons In The Sun" was an adaption of Brel's "Le Moribond" (1961). Both songs can be heard below.

Blues and jazz also live in Belgium. Small wonder, considering that the saxophone was invented here, by Adolphe Sax, in 1846.

Toots Thielemans was born in Brussels in 1922. He was likely a great influence on a young John Lennon, and is hailed as one of the greatest jazz harmonica players of the 20th century. In 2009 he became an NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for jazz musicians in the United States.

Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) is perhaps the most widely known of all Belgian musicians. Although his left hand was partially paralysed from a fire, he became one of the most renowned jazz guitarists in history. If you don't know what gypsy jazz is, go watch a Pixar movie.

I'm less familiar with the pop and rock scene in Belgium, but here are a few names if you are interested: Soulsister, Noordkaap, dEUS, Zita Swoon, Malibu Stacy, Hooverphonic.

If you feel more like electronica, techno, house, dance or trance, check out Kate Ryan, Technotronic or 2 Unlimited.

If you like rap, go to the Netherlands.

Got some more suggestions? Tell me in the comments section!


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yum yum.

They're one of the most basic fast foods in the modern world. Every minute, thousands of deep-fried potato strips slide down the hungry gullets of people from Anchorage to Addis Abeba. But do you know the origins of this magnificent food?

If you're from North America, you probably call them "French fries", which is a common mistake. You can thank your (great-)great-grandparents for this.

The first potatoes were fried in the Meuse valley in modern-day Belgium in 1680. Over two hundred years later, during the First World War, the fries became popular among American troops serving in the area. Because their colleagues in the Belgian Army only spoke French, it would be harder for the Americans to make a distinction between French and Belgian culture and cuisine. Thus, when the troops returned home, they told everyone about the "French fries" they had been served in Europe. Today you can find fries on the menu of restaurants in all 50 states - even the one with Springfield in it:

Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful Belgian food.
A still from The Simpsons Movie (2007).

The tradition from 1680 is alive and well in today's Belgium. In millions of househoulds you will find a countertop deep fryer, and on every street is a fries shop (called a friterie if you speak French and frituur if you speak Dutch) selling the national snack in white paper cones. The most common condiment is mayonnaise, but you can also get them with ketchup, barbeque sauce, or "gypsy sauce", the contents of which I'm not sure I want to know. The idea of putting mayonnaise on fries used to be as foreign to me as eating a snail, but now I never eat fries without it.

My future father-in-law rocks one of these like Hendrix with his Strat.
The majestic deep fryer, a mainstay of the Belgian home kitchen.

Fries are also a vital ingredient in the country's national dish, mussles and fries, which I will tell you about later. For now, remember that "French" fries are really Belgian, and the best ones have mayonnaise on them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ten notable Belgian comics

You can read part 2 in this series here.

Comics have a prominent place in Belgian culture. Just as Belgians love to read Scandinavian mystery novels, so are Belgian comics exported all over the world, sometimes making it as far as the Arctic Circle and beyond. As an introduction to the topic, I've composed a list of ten highlights from the Belgian comics industry.