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Steampunk street band The Folk Dandies with Steve Louvat | Photo: the band's official press kit
Steampunk street band The Folk Dandies with Steve Louvat | Photo: the band's official press kit
Loes van Schaijk -

All Eyes on Wallonia and Brussels: "All the Arts Joined Forces in Support of Culture"

"A PhD would not be enough to describe the political system of Belgium," cultural policymaker and lobbyist Valentine Remels said jokingly when I interviewed her and jazz musician Mathieu Robert for what was originally meant to be an "All Eyes on Belgium." But as in Belgium's almost absurdly complicated political structure, culture does not fall directly under the state government but mainly under the three communities (Dutch-speaking Flemish, French, German-speaking) and sometimes under the regions (Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels), it makes sense to devote multiple articles to Belgium's music scene(s) as well. After last month's "All Eyes on Flanders," today all eyes are on Wallonia and Brussels—with Robert, Remels, and folk/bluegrass musician Steve Louvat. 

Steve Louvat: "Music is music, and I love collaborating with Flemish musicians and playing there"

Hailing from Liège, now living in Libin in the South of Belgium, left-handed 5-string-banjo and fingerstyle guitar player Steve Louvat has been passionately devoted to bluegrass and folk music since early childhood and full-time since 2010. He is well-known for his virtuosity, kind personality, musical open-mindedness, and ability to fuse bluegrass with classical, jazz, and world music styles. The list of places he has toured (which includes most of Europe, the United States, Canada, India, French Polynesia, and more) is just as impressive as his list of musical projects and collaborations. He currently plays solo, with his own trio Louvat Bros, with "steampunk marching band" Folk Dandies and the trad/Celt group Polk Trio, and he also plays "duets on the spot" with musicians such as trad guitarist Philip Masure and Latin jazz guitarist Stéphane Martini. He played with the Philharmonic Orchestras of Liège (P.O. Royal) and Brussels (P.O. Anima Eterna) and will start a project with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Lille this January.

Do you think there is something like a Belgian music scene, or should I really see Flanders and Wallonia as separated music scenes?

Good question! As for bluegrass or Irish music, there are a few places that are dedicated to these genres and plenty of concert venues that welcome these styles, but I wouldn't really speak of a "scene." Personally, I would not separate Flanders and Wallonia, because we live in Belgium before all, even if we have two parts. But there are some differences. For example, government funding is split, in fact. Voilà. But music is music, and I love collaborating with Flemish musicians and playing there. It's all about having the contacts and then just going there—and then speaking Dutch, if possible. (laughs)

What is that like, I mean practically, that "the money is split?" And what kind of support is available to musicians?

Basically, you have the Wallonia/Brussels French-speaking community, and you have the Dutch-speaking Flemish part. Each community has its own budget to support culture. Just like there are two national radios (even three, including the German community's radio station, ed.)—and they're in the same building!

In Belgium, we are lucky because working musicians can apply for an "artists' status" that ties you over moments of the year when you have no income because you have no or few concerts. Every year, you need to give them an overview of what you did as a musician that year, and if you have been busy enough overall, then you qualify for the support for the following year.   

Recording rights organization Sabam offers several grants, and neighboring rights organization Playright offers support that you can apply for if you lost concerts in a certain month due to corona restrictions.

Then there's the Federation Wallonia Brussels—an institution which supports fields like teaching, sports, culture, science research, etc.—for the Wallonia/Brussels part and the WBI (Wallonia Brussels International) that supports international relations of Wallonia and Brussels, like projects to export Belgian music to the rest of the world. Applying for that means a bunch of paperwork; you have to prove that you are going to bring something to your country, like a collaboration with musicians from abroad, for example. I've been to India, to Canada, and to Hungary with this funding. So, it is very interesting, but it is always a lot of work because you are not the only one. There's a lot of competition. But if you obtain it, it's a nice collaboration and amount of money. You can apply as often as you'd like, as long as you have an interesting project and it is different from the one before.

What does it mean to be a full-time musician in Belgium?

I would say that being a musician is about being versatile, creating new projects all the time. You can play with a project for one year or two years, maybe three; by then, everybody in your country knows about your project, and if they want to hear you again, they expect you to bring something new to the stage. Belgium is quite small, and so I like to work on several projects at the same time—these musical and human collaborations are so rich, it makes me happy. Of course, a musician's job also includes management, taking care of social media, websites, videos, recordings... And that's only the musical aspect of my life because I have two wonderful kids and I work on other things, too… It's a lot of work, but I like it!

If you play in the French-speaking part of Belgium, is it important to play French-language music? Do audiences want to hear songs in French, or does it not matter at all? Can you sing in English or Dutch?

I do not sing on stage (laughs)! But I would say that it depends on how you want to communicate with people. People in Wallonia love the English language, they hear it on the radio all day, so that's no problem at all. But I think that if you have something to tell them, and you do it in French, they are going to be touched differently.

And, of course, there's a francophone music scene in Wallonia. You have the Francofolies, for example, in the town of Spa. They have a contest for the best francophone singer. These days, new young artists like Angèle who sing in French have a lot of success. She just wrote a song in which she sings that she loves Brussels, even though she's in Paris most of the time now. But she is very successful with that.

What are your favorite music venues?

I will take my most recent example. It was the 28th of November and I played a solo guitar concert in this old, beautiful, little church (Eglise de Niverlée). It was organized by the cultural center of Doische. It was full and the acoustic was perfect. I took my amplifier with me, but I don't know what happened—the battery was flat, so I needed to play unplugged. Pure acoustic guitar and banjo and the sound was perfect! I love this proximity with the people because I like to talk to them and explain why I wrote a tune and what it means to me. It's always a very nice experience for me as a musician and human who wants to share something with people. You don't get that on a big stage, even though it is also a lot of fun when a thousand people are dancing in front of you. 

How do you find places like that, those little churches? Do you have a booking agency, or do you just know it from all your years of experience? Did they call you?

I do the management for my projects. Here in Wallonia, there are two main ways to get concerts. You have the cultural centers. The stages are great and the rooms are very interesting, but they are flooded with requests from the musicians who want to play there, so it's very hard to make the cut. But they are in contact with everything happening around them, so even if you don't play on the main stage of the cultural center itself, they can help you get shows in other places, like these little churches that are transformed into little concert halls dedicated to music, for example.

And there's also the Syndicat des Initiatives, which is basically a bunch of friends who organize events in their village or town. Through them, you can also sometimes get concerts in nice, alternative venues.

Mathieu Robert and Valentine Remels: "The jazz world in Wallonia feels really tiny"

Mathieu Robert is a saxophonist (specialized in soprano saxophone), composer, improviser, and music teacher based in Brussels. He engages in jazz, chamber music, improvised and contemporary music, Indian and Brazilian music, as well as meditative minimalist music. He has released albums with various duo formations, such as with the Sardinian pianist Mario Ganau (Prima Scena, Hypnote Records); drummer Nicolas Chkifi (Music is Coming); bassist Nicolas Lancerotti (Improvisations and Short Stories); saxophonist Erwin Vann; and soprano saxophonist Pierre Vaiana (Les voisins sont des indiens, Fatik Trio+3, and will soon release the duet for two sopranos Winlin Wéku). Mathieu is also a member of the Guillaume Vierset Harvest Group, Gonzalo Rodrigez's ZOLA Quartet, and the French-Brazilian song project ROSA (Chorando Sim, and the show for young audiences Gato). His practice of yoga and meditation inspired his solo project (Recording Shruti) involving a shruti box, gongs, bells, singing bowls, and the saxophone, resulting in soft and meditative acoustic landscapes.

Valentine Remels graduated from Codarts Circus Arts university with a specialization in the Chinese pole and then pursued a Master in Culture and Education. After being the pedagogical coordinator of the university for contemporary circus Esac in Brussels for two years, she started working for Latitude 50, a cultural venue in the countryside that books shows and offers residencies to artists in the fields of circus and street arts (including "fanfare" and other street musicians). Together with a colleague, Valentine oversees the residencies (welcoming artists, hosting presentations of work in progress, and logistic and administrative work). She has lobbied for artists' rights during the covid crisis when she was on the board of Aires Libres, the federation for circus and street arts in the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles (also referred to as the French Community). Aires Libres is an active member and founder of UPAC-t (Union des Professionels des Arts et de la Culture—pôle Travailleurs). Now, she is also a member of the Commission des Arts Vivants, a council that assesses the various applications for artists' grants and advises the FWB's Department of Culture on how to distribute the budget.

Do you see the Belgium music scene as a whole or is it more divided into Flanders and Wallonia?

Mathieu: From my perspective, when it comes to the world of jazz improvisation, it's totally divided. Meaning it's quite difficult for a person from Wallonia to play in Flanders, and I think the opposite is probably true as well.

Valentine: It's politically organized that way—because culture is not a federal topic, it's organized by the communities. So the money that goes to music venues or to musicians directly—financial aid during the Covid crisis, for example—is not allotted by the Belgian government directly, but by the (Flemish, French, and German) communities. Often, one of the conditions for receiving this money is that it is used to support "the local scene," meaning the region. I know from my work in the performing arts field that theaters in Wallonia need to book a certain quota of Walloon artists. Consequently, bookers will be less likely to take risks with the few "international artists" they still have room for and will book mostly big names. Truly, an artist from Flanders would almost be considered "international" for this reason…

So, actually, for a club in Wallonia, it wouldn't matter so much if they would get an artist from Flanders or from France or from the UK?

Valentine: Exactly. Well, travel expenses might be cheaper… But this goes for venues that get their funding from the community funding. If they are privately funded, then it's another story.

Mathieu: One example of aid that artists can apply for in Wallonia is called Les Tournées Art et Vie (Art and Life Tours). If your project is accepted into the catalog, then you can play in cultural centers and get some subsidies: the venue, the government, and the region where you play each pay a third. One of the conditions is that the music needs to appeal to French-speaking audiences.

Mathieu: It's actually quite funny—I remember that a friend of mine played with American jazz drummer Jim Black. He was recording for a Walloon or Brussels label at the time. And I think they were not sure whether or not they should accept this project, because for whatever reason, they thought it was more addressed to the Flemish part of Belgium (laughs). Which was weird, because there weren't even any lyrics, and there were no Flemish people involved in the project! There was a French piano player, an American drummer, and a Danish bass player. I think they thought: "This is gonna tour more in Flanders."

Valentine: Maybe because a tour with international musicians is more expensive… I have the feeling that the Flemish venues generally book musicians of a higher level. And I don't know if that's because the jazz scene is more developed there, or if they just have more money to book the more famous bands...

Mathieu: It's true that when I want to see concerts of musicians I'm interested in, I often go to Flanders, I don't really go to Wallonia. The jazz world in Wallonia feels really tiny, a bit "poor" somehow… It's maybe a good thing to think about (laughs).

Valentine: But you play with a lot of Flemish people. So, in some way, the artists don't see the border.

Mathieu: True—between musicians, there is no border.

What kind of venues are there in Wallonia for jazz musicians?

Mathieu: Little jazz clubs like L'An Vert and Jacques Pelzer Jazz Club, cultural centers, theaters, and jazz festivals like Gaume Jazz Festival and Jazz à Liège. Jazz Station is a jazz club, but they also have podcasts and videos on their website, a bit like an online radio station. But it feels difficult to remember, because I haven't been playing for a while, with the pandemic...

How have musicians gotten through the pandemic so far? Did everybody start teaching or working in the supermarket?

Valentine: Some musicians have a special protection for artists within the general social security's system for unemployment, which compensates them for periods without concerts—regardless of the pandemic, because periods without work are inherent to the job of an artist. In France they call this "intermittence" and in Belgium artists refer to it as "artists' status," even though that is not an official term.

Mathieu: Yes, and during the pandemic, they made access to this "artists' status" easier for those who didn't have it yet. So that was something that helped a few people. I didn't manage to get it, because my file was a bit of a mess….

Valentine: Well, because you were teaching on the side, and this is kind of an obstacle to getting the "artists' status." But Wallonia also offered a pandemic aid in the form of a one-off €3000 "present" to artists who could prove that they had a certain amount of contracts the year before the pandemic.

Valentine, was the situation for musicians and performing artists similar?

Valentine: Yes. All the artistic sectors joined forces for the occasion in a so-called "Federation of the Federation of Artists," with the same goals of lobbying and requesting the government to support culture. We needed a stronger structure to support all artists during the pandemic, even though there are differences between the disciplines. For example, circus artists normally earn more money per performance than musicians, so circus artists normally need to account for fewer days of work in a year to be eligible for the "artists' status." But during the pandemic, all artists were in the same boat. The big problem was that contracts between venues and artists are typically signed on the day itself, not in advance. Performances are confirmed—and then canceled—by email, which was not considered legal proof, but fortunately, we managed to change that by our joint lobby. Getting the politicians to understand the specificity of how we work administratively in the field was quite a struggle.

Also, during the lockdown, all the artistic disciplines gathered in a demonstration called Still Standing for Culture. Part of this was performances that fit within the current regulations, such as shows in the windows of bars that were closed.

Mathieu: The region of Flanders offered a grant for musicians who did live-stream concerts. I participated in one of them, along with another Walloon saxophone player with three other Flemish people.

But as far as I know, there was not one common aid for the whole country of Belgium. And I was not really aware of all the grants offered by Wallonia, because I live in Brussels, which is a separate region.

Valentine: The municipalities also offered some aid to artists, especially when things reopened in the summer. Different organizations operated under the common name Place Aux Artistes; the word "place" has two meanings, so it is both "Artists' Square" and "Room for Artists." They basically had a budget to buy shows so that artists could play again as soon as it was allowed. We also had this Un Future pour la Culture (A Future for the Culture) in Wallonia, which was an open call that encouraged young artists, women, and minorities to apply for funding for a residency.

As a Federation, we were concerned with the effects of these open calls. We could already foresee that there would be a "traffic jam of shows"—those that got canceled due to Covid—and then on top of that, there would be all these new creations. During the lockdowns, musicians were composing and recording, and then, when everybody releases their album at the same time, there is not enough space for everyone to be seen and heard. We thought it was not the best way to help, but it did help people to stay active.

You are speaking in the past tense; does that mean everything is back to normal? Is everything open, or are there still restrictions?

Mathieu: I can't keep up with it anymore…

Valentine: Oh, it changed a lot. There was a really long lockdown that lasted from November 2020 until May or June 2021. After that, they didn't want to yo-yo—like, open-close-open-close—so basically, everything has stayed open since then, but the rules concerning face masks and the number of people allowed at cultural events have changed a few times. Right now, you need a Covid-safe ticket for cultural events of over fifty people, and I think the maximum capacity for theaters is two hundred. So, artists are starting to get cancellations again, because their shows are "too big" for this capacity. And it also seems people are a bit reluctant or afraid to go in this time of year, because they are preparing for the family meetings at Christmas, so they want to avoid meeting too many people.

What would you recommend a band from abroad who wants to tour in Wallonia?

Mathieu: Well, for jazz, the most complete website is called Jazz in Belgium. On it, you can check all the venues, musicians, projects, recordings, and workshops in the entire country. Also, for jazz there's an association called Les Lundis d'Hortense. Through them, you can apply for help with tours and concerts in clubs or at festivals in Brussels.

Valentine: In general, I would recommend any band who wants to tour abroad to find a band in that country that plays the same kind of music and look at their concert calendar, maybe from before Covid (laughs). And for cultural centers in Belgium, it's quite easy to find out who does the bookings for your artistic discipline and contact them directly; usually, their e-mail address consists of their name followed by the name of the institution.

But the cultural centers book all the artistic disciplines and the programmers don't have a lot of time to discover new artists. So, they prefer to choose from the catalog of an organization that they trust—such as Les Lundis d'Hortense—so I would say that responding to open calls written out by these organizations is the best way to get into the cultural centers.

Valentine: I would also recommend artists to apply to festivals because if programmers go to discover a lot of new music in a short period of time, that's where they go. And at the festival, try to network; getting to know the right people, chit-chatting with a drink and...

Mathieu: (with a tone of horror in his voice) smiling...

Valentine: I know, it's not your cup of tea... but it works like this in most art forms. These informal talks are very important. Because programmers also talk amongst themselves, they gather and exchange information. Not only regionally, but also internationally. So, I would also recommend going to your local concert organizer and asking them: "Hey, I'm planning to go to Belgium, do you know any venues there?" It's a good way, actually; promoting and exporting artists is their job, after all. You have to remember that it's not just you who needs them, it works both ways—you are not in the lower position. If you see it as a collaboration, you will get more respect and you can go further.

Who are your favorite artists from Wallonia and Brussels? Have you ever played there yourselves, or are you planning to? How is funding for culture distributed in your country? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

Tagy Valentine Remels Steve Louvat Mathieu Robert All Eyes on Wallonia and Brussels All Eyes on French community in Belgium Wallonia music scene Brussels music scene Bluegrass in Belgium Jazz in Belgium Still Standing for Culture

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Loes van Schaijk
Originally from the Netherlands, I'm a singer-songwriter and instrumentalist (double bass, guitar and bodhrán) based in Prague, Czech Republic. I have many years of experience touring the European bluegrass and folk scene with bands such as Red Herring, Svaťa Kotas Band, and p…