Battle of the bands: Belgian music industry fights linguistic loyalties | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 30.09.2009
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Battle of the bands: Belgian music industry fights linguistic loyalties

Belgium's linguistic divide has not only affected its political landscape. The music industry is also battling to overcome regional loyalties and create a single Belgian identity - despite its differences.

The symbols of Flanders and Wallonia in front of crossed electric guitars

Music both divides and unites Belgian's two main regions

For many outside of Belgium, the fact that this small European kingdom of just 10.5 million people is such a productive font of musical talent may come as something of a surprise.

But one thing that few would have trouble believing, is that the linguistic disputes that notoriously plague Belgian in social, academic, and administrative circles are evident in the musical sphere as well.

Belgium is as famous for its political in-fighting along linguistic lines as it is for its beer and chocolate. After all, this is the country which took nearly eighteen months to form a coalition government after elections in 2007, and which once threatened to throw Europe into chaos by splitting in two.

Belgian rock band dEUS

Antwerp band dEUS are one of the few to bridge the divide

It should come as no surprise then to find out that Francophone and Flemish loyalties also affect Belgium's cultural landscape. But not everyone agrees on just what is behind the split.

"Unfortunately there is a divide in the music industry," said Francois Fabri, manager of Vismets, a Francophone rock band from Brussels. "Some media and venues in Flanders block bands from French-speaking Wallonia, and I'm sure it happens to Flemish bands going south. But this is not a division made by the public."

Fabri claims music fans themselves see bands as Belgian, not Flemish or Francophone. "It's the media fabricating this divide," he said. "It forgets that Belgium isn't Flanders and Wallonia. Belgium is Belgium."

One of the few bands to truly be accepted as Belgian and enjoy both national and international success is Antwerp's dEUS.

Bands prosper locally, struggle in other regions

Stéphane Misseghers, the band's drummer, has toured his home country extensively and has experienced both sides of the perceived divide. He disagrees with Fabri's assertion that the media is solely responsible for the divide; he believes the two communities contribute to the problem by maintaining regional and linguistic loyalties.

"We consider ourselves to be a Belgian band but it's sadly true that there is a divide along the regional lines," he said. "Bands from the north and south have different opportunities."

Belgian rock band Ghinzu

Ghinzu are hugely popular in Wallonia but have had to fight hard to get any recognition in Flanders

The bands from the south don't get as much chance to play in the north as the Flemish bands do down south, Misseghers asserts: "Some bands don't even make it over the border, and that's amazing"

"It could be pure musical taste or the way the two communities live, which is very different. I think it's just a different mentality which radiates into the music," he added.

Jan Paternoster, lead singer and guitarist with Flemish band The Black Box Revelation, has had similar experiences.

"We're from the north and we pretty much sell out all the venues we play in Flanders but if we were to go south to the French part, we're not so well received. It's really difficult to get as many people to see us in the south as in the north because they think 'Oh, it's a Flemish band, why should we listen to it? We have our own music.'"

"The Flemish speak better English"

Pierre van Braekel, label boss at Bang!, Belgium's most successful independent record company, believes the Flemish bands' better command of English contributes to the divide.

"The Flemish speak much better English than the Walloons," he said. "They are more English minded. We Walloons are more French-minded. I would say more bands from the north have success in the south than the other way round. ... But it is in our own hands. If bands from the south were more inclined to speak Flemish ... then we would be in a better position to promote our bands in the north."

Kurt Overbergh, the artistic director at the Ancienne Belgique, the Flemish community's cultural and music complex in Brussels, believes the financial and infrastructural divide that so heavily influences the political battles between affluent Flanders and its poorer southern neighbor also plays a part in the music industry.

Affluent north developing faster than poorer south

"Having good financial backing for venues and the infrastructure in place helps bands develop," Overbergh said. "If you have good competition around you, that drives you to be better. When you don't have a competitive system, like in the French part, or well-equipped venues and fewer opportunities, you can become more satisfied with what you're doing."

The disparity can lead to envy: "Some French bands see the support Flemish bands get and wonder why it's not the same for them. It does breed a certain atmosphere," Overbergh conceded.

Le Botanique at night

Le Botanique, the French community's cultural center, is at the heart of divide-spanning cooperations

Despite the obvious differences and difficulties within a music industry that operates in two languages over such fiercely defended cultural lines, many within the business are committed to creating a spirit of togetherness - and to strengthening the Belgian identity.

Most important, according to Paul-Henri Wauters, the artistic director at Le Botanique, the cultural center of the French-speaking community in Brussels, is the connection between his venue and its Flemish counterpart, the Ancienne Belgique.

Both venues have the same mission: to promote bands as Belgian bands. "We have much more to share than to fight against," asserted Wauters.

Once a year, the Botanique and Ancienne Belgique cultural centers host a small Belgian festival, where artistic decisions are made jointly. At other times, if a band that can attract a good audience is set to play at one venue, they will play at the other venue on the following night, and are jointly promoted.

"These events can only be achieved through cooperation," Wauters said.

Changing times: détente ahead

Le Botanique's innovative collaboration with the Ancienne Belgique is central to a new and stable support network between the two communities - something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. ABClub Circuit, an annual rotating festival organized by a number of the country's smaller venues, is another successful initiative promoting cooperation. The signs point to a growing détente.

"I think that music overcomes any barrier, if there actually is one in Belgium," said Tristan Lagae, one of the organizers of the ABClub Circuit.

"I see French, Flemish, German speaking people showing up at our concerts and I don't think there is any problem. ... Music unites people and doesn't create barriers as some people might think," he added.

Ancienne Belgique's Overbergh says that ten years ago, the atmosphere in the Belgian music scene was "very weird," with everyone fighting for territory and "secluded in their own venues."

But in the last five years, collaborations and awareness have grown. And now, he says, the Flemish and French speaking commnunities have developed a common goal: "To make the cultural landscape of Belgium a better place. It's a very beautiful time for cooperation."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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