Politics Affects Belgium's Music Scene

The World

Singer Milow at a concert

A year ago Monday, Belgians went to the polls to choose a new government. It is now a full 365 days, and they are still waiting. Politicians from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south, have been unable to form a government. Linguistic, cultural and economic divisions between north and south are to blame, according to the politicians. Like its politics, the country's music scene is also split. Take a recent announcement by the Brussels Metro system. Officials announced that the piped-in playlist would no longer include French language music, because they had received complaints from Dutch-speaking riders, who complained that there were too many songs in French, and too few in Dutch. That means huge, nationwide hits like "Alors on danse," by Brussels-based hip-hop artist Stromae (an anagram for "maestro"). In fact, you cannot go many places in Belgium, or Europe for that matter, where that track does not get extensive airplay. Instead, the Brussels Metro decided that from now on, only hit songs in Spanish, Italian and English will be played. "Lady Gaga is all over the Metro, and that is suddenly not a problem," joked Brussels author and blogger Marcel Sel. "To me, that's the big problem. I mean, I don't even like Lady Gaga." Sel noted that now, neither of Belgium's two main musical languages will be celebrated in the capital's Metro system. But he said, it is also more than just language that divides. "Old fashioned pop that is produced in Flanders doesn't really match the French taste, which is more or less la chanson francaise," Sel said. Jacques Brel, for one, did manage to be a musical hero for both Dutch and French speakers. And more recently, Sel said, a band called Clouseau has been popular nationwide. Despite the name, Clouseau sings in Dutch, with a bit of French thrown in now and then. One popular track is called "Leve België," or Long Live Belgium. Bob Driege, who runs the Vynilla record shop in Dutch-speaking Ghent, said bands that sing in Dutch, like Clouseau, generally do not do so well in French-speaking Wallonia. "It's strange; it's like another country. It's language, and it's historical, I think. It's also the bookers, the people who book the bands into clubs. The Flemish bookers work in Flanders and the Wallonian bookers work in their territory." Driege said he has tried to sell French-language bands in his shop over the years, with only limited success. Etienne Bours, who is based just outside of French-speaking Liege, has tried to feature Flemish artists on his radio music program. "There's a very good young singer called Milow that I played on my show recently," Bours said. "He's important right now in Belgium because he sings what many people don't even dare to say." In one of Milow's tracks, called "The Kingdom," he sings: "Where I'm from we are divided between the north and the south." In another part of the song, Milow says: "Where I'm from there's a lack of heroes, both in politics and in song." Not surprisingly, he has taken some heat from some of his more separatist Flemish fans for tracks like "The Kingdom." Ironically, said author Marcel Sel, Milow's song at least has a shot at getting played on the Metro in Brussels, because it's in English. "The politicians are quarreling about myths and symbols," he said. "If instead they were promoting both languages in the Metro, and saying, 'This week will be promoting this Dutch song, or this French song,' then I think that would be interesting. That's the kind of investment we should do, especially in Brussels." Sel said he suggests starting such a project with Arno, who is known as the Belgian Tom Waits. After all, Arno is from Flanders, sings songs in French, and lives in Brussels, which makes him, well, really Belgian.