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!



  1. I'm learning a lot of new names here, too ^^

    Reminds me we have to catch a Wim Mertens concert sometime :o
    Keep on writing, baby! ^^ <3

  2. From a Belgian living abroad for 7 years now (I am actually in Spain but one of my dreams is to spend a few years in North Norway, Tromsø or Svalbard to be precisely.... so seems we do have some odd things in common !) :

    I never rated the Belgian music highly compared to the music of neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands and Germany. A nuance I should make is that mainly the Dutch language bands in my opinion are quite poor. The whole Tien Om Te Zien scene is a sort of Flemish Schlager, and I very much dislike it. Yevgueni are amongst the happy few singing in Dutch and being quite good actually, I always quite liked Hof Van Commerce (unlike Flip Kowlier solo) and most of all the king of Dutch-language Belgian music Stijn Meuris (vocalist of Monza and previously of Noordkaap).

    When bands singing not in Dutch are considered, the Belgian music scene looks a lot better. Bands such as Arid have a few very decent songs, Ozark Henry wrote a true evergreen with "Sweet Instigator", Red Zebra are still going strong with quality punk music, there is Zornik who have a decent set of songs (although maybe a bit too much a Placebo copy), Breath of Life who make quality darkwave/gothic (the video for their song "Mirror Eyes" is amongst the best video clips ever from Belgium), K's Choice is a great band that also made it big across the borders, Laïs (who sing in different languages) are very good ... Belgium does offer good music, just stay away from the dance scene (Milk Inc got boring long time ago, and Kate Ryan is on my hit list for her horrible covers of Mylene Farmer) and the schlager songs. Once you get into the rock and alternative scene, you come across some very decent bands. And if you insist on Dutch language: try Noordkaap and Monza, Stijn Meuris (the vocalist) is excellent!

    Mid venlig hilsen!

    PS: my blogs and

    PS II: Norwegian music has produced some fine artists too. I love Lene Marlin, her debut album sounded very mature (she was only 16 or 17 then) and she has an angelic voice. And from my dreamt-of Tromsø!

  3. Thanks for the input, it's always welcome!

    I agree with you on Lene Marlin; It's too bad she hasn't managed to do anything worthwhile since that first album, though.

  4. Finally figured out how to post with my real name instead of anonymous ; guess that shows how little I know about computers ...

    Lene Marlin's first album was incredibly mature for her age. Unforgivable Sinner was haunting, by far my favourite. But somehow tracks such as Sitting Down Here are appealing like a tempting summer breeze, while songs such as Playing My Game or A Place Nearby are creating a beautiful atmosphere in a more intimate way. I really liked that album but then I relocated abroad and found her albums (the ones released afterwards) very hard to find in shops. Seems she wasn't that famous in Ireland or Turkey (which is where I spent the first years after leaving Belgium) and if a store had a CD of hers it was the debut which I already bought before leaving Belgium.

    Now as for rock and alternative music in Belgium, give these tracks a listen on YouTube :) I also added some more "kleinkunst" tracks worth listening to.

    Hooverphonic - Mad About You, Battersea, Out of Sight (all with previous vocalist), The Night Before (with the new vocalist, the stunningly beautiful woman Noemie Wolfs)

    Ozark Henry - Sweet Instigator (in my opinion one of the best tracks ever from Belgium)

    Monza - Van God Los
    Noordkaap - Satelliet SUZY, Wat is Kunst?, Arme Joe, Panamarenko

    Red Zebra - I cannot live in a Living Room, Spit on the City (this band pioneered punk in Belgium and exists for about 30 years now... A few of their tracks even became regularly played in punk venues outside of Belgium)

    Flip Kowlier - Min Moaten

    De Kreuners - Ik Wil Je (this was a smash hit back when it came out)

    Gorki - Mia, Ooit Was Ik Een Soldaat

    Arid - You Are, All I Did Was Get Close to You

    Zornik - Hey Girl

    Willem Vermandere - Als Ik Zing, Bange Blanke Man

    Zjef Vanuytsel - Zotte Morgen

    Kris De Bruyne - Amsterdam

    Wim De Craene - Tim

    The Breath of Life - Mirror Eyes (note the beautiful promo video too)

    the metaln scene in Belgium apparently also has some good acts, but I am not too familiar with them. I know Ancient Rites is quite succesful, but there my knowledge ends.

  5. @Gerrit: Hartelijk bedankt! I will check it all out. It's great to see how much more I've learned in the eight months since I wrote this post. For instance, Yevgueni is now my favourite Flemish group as well as that of my fiancé! I also hear a surprising amount of Flemish music in my Dutch classes. It's made me realize what a shame it is that so many great bands are completely ignored outside their own country.

  6. I think part of the problem is that those acts who sing in Dutch, are generally quite poor. Yevgueni is an exception, Stijn Meuris is great, some songs by Gorki are not bad (although not a fan of the band overall) but those are the exceptions. Many Dutch-language acts are stuck in the schlager era (listening to Jo Vally, Bart Kaell, Lisa Del Bo, Get Ready or Isabelle A is recommendable only in drunk state while raising the pint... but it is a torture to listen to them in sober state!)

    In general, when including bands singing in English, Belgium does have a lot of talent, but it is not a country with a very big music industry, so only the outstanding ones get media attention outside of the borders. Which is a shame, because bands such as Ozark Henry, The Breath of Life, Das Pop, Arid (who did get a limited bit of fame abroad), etc deserve a lot better. However, some Belgian bands made it abroad: K's Choice, dEUS, TC Matic, ... and let's not forget Wallace Collection. Their song "Daydream" is a true evergreen and was a huge success across Europe!

    Actually, your blog made me think... You are an expat in belgium, I am a Belgian expat in Spain. If I had a blog similar to yours and had to pick a "song of the week" I'd be lost after less than a month. I enjoy life in Spain a lot, but one of the things were Belgium is definitely better, is music. No offense to fans of Julio Iglesias or so, but mainly when it comes to rock, the Spanish music scene is not that exciting at all. It says a lot when Mecano (known from "Hijo de la Luna") is considered somewhat alternative in Spain. Yeah, there is Shakira who is very catchy, but while she sings in Spain and is in Spain very often, she is Colombian. The best Spanish-language act isn't even from Spain ... The Catalan government now gives subsidies to new bands singing in Catalan language in an attempt to make the language more popular amongst young Catalans. So maybe we'll see some good rock bands emerge soon, though when singing ONLY in Catalan they'll have a limited target audience outside of this area (very likely even to be ignored in other parts of Spain)

  7. I've also noted the lingering presence of the schlager genre in Belgium. It is not my thing (and I'm not sure if a beer or ten would help).

    Thanks for the tips, I might include them in future posts ;)

    I know next to nothing about Spanish or Spanish-language music (apart from Gipsy Kings and "Escuela de calor" by Radio Futura), so there's not much I can say about that. But if you did have to pick a song of the week, you would definitely learn a lot. I know I do.

  8. But where to do the search to guarantee coming up with a good one?

    Speaking of Spanish music, after all those years this is still my favourite Spanish-language song:

    Ana Torroja is fabulously charismatic in this performance. Mecano was one of the bands that has risen from the underground during the Movida Madrileña that started after the death of dictator Franco and the return to democracy.

    Gypsy Kings are as far as I know gitano's (gypsies) who may sing in their own language instead of Spanish, although I am not sure.

  9. EDIT: you are right, they sing in Spanish, albeit in a dialect. The band was French apparently, whose parents were Spanish gitano's who fled when the fascist regime took control.

    An interesting Spanish language band is Los Aldeanos from Cuba. One of the ONLY Cuban bands that somehow gets away with criticising the regime in their songs without being censored or arrested. Their lyrics are very well-written even when it's not my type of music overall. (that, and the fact that I do support the Cuban regime... but I think their lyrics are very poetic nonetheless)

  10. "But where to do the search to guarantee coming up with a good one?"
    There are no guarantees, of course, which I find makes it all the more exciting when I do find something I like.

    Thanks for the suggestions. I know I've heard "Hijo de la luna" somewhere before, but I have no idea where or when.

    And about Los Aldeanos: I like some rap, but without understanding the lyrics I can't get much out of it. I think I can sense some of the poetic aspect, though. It would have helped if I were going to study Spanish instead of Italian...