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Inside the Street Music of Belgium

brussels music central square

Although Belgium is primarily known for its beer, chocolate, and waffles, the musical culture of Belgium is outstanding and vibrant.

On my recent trip to Bruges and Brussels in Belgium, I was able to get an immersive taste of the music and its importance to the people.

Music in Belgium is an odd mix of Flemish Dutch, French, German, and a melting pot of many other foreign languages. One of the unique traits of Belgium as a country, is that there are three official languages based on region: Flemish Dutch, French, and German. So, depending on where I was in Belgium, people either spoke mostly Dutch or mostly French. The German-speaking part of the country is a very small region near Germany so although it’s an official language, it is not primarily spoken in most parts.

Per my experience on the streets of Belgium, the people mostly listen to and perform American music but often it was an instrumental cover on the saxophone or another brass instrument. The alto saxophone was invented in Belgium by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s and is still widely popular in the area today. Some other popular styles of music includes African Congo due to large amounts of immigrants from the Congo back when it was a Belgian territory, as well as anything from classical to jazz, and from pop to hip-hop. The more techno and “trance” music, however, goes to their neighbors in the Netherlands, who are known for their talented EDM producers.

Brussels street music belgiumTo actually play music in Belgium, at least on the streets, permits are required but the criteria varies by city. In Bruges, for example, almost anyone can apply for a day permit at the city hall but for longer periods of time they have to apply ahead of time to play. However, in Brussels, the rules are far more strict and regulated. To play music in Brussels, or even apply for a permit in the first place, you must have a degree in the Arts such as music or theater. Even with these strict laws, many groups and musicians travel from all over to play in Belgium from places such as France, Russia, England, and even America. I was even lucky enough to talk to some of these musicians on my trip and discuss what it was like to play on the streets of Belgium.

During my four days of visiting Bruges, I had seen a couple of men setting up a stage in a small square crowded with restaurants. The first man was Fredrick Starks, who played the drums and was from Louisiana. Fredrick came to Bruges to “get in touch with his roots” by playing soul and R ‘n B. The other man, Renoar Hadri, plays the electric bass and has been in Belgium for the last 40 years. I wasn’t able to meet the third person in their band, but when we passed by again later that night, I was lucky enough to hear them as we navigated our way through the dense crowd they had drawn in with their skills.

On my last day in Bruges before heading to Brussels, I realized the music we were hearing during our lunch was actually a group of men playing live from around the corner. They were playing hits such as “Despacito”, “I’m Yours”, and “Tequila” on the saxophone with accompaniment from a drummer and acoustic guitarist. Once they called for a break, to the disappointment of the growing crowd, I walked up and introduced myself. Their lead saxophonist, Dmytryi Viatkin, and drummer Ilyia Bondarev introduced themselves and the rest of their small band. Their acoustic guitarist and second sax player didn’t speak enough English so I sadly wasn’t able to interview them. Everyone except Dmytryi was from Russia, while he was from Ukraine, but they had been playing together all over Europe in places such as Spain, France, Ukraine, Russia, and Belgium. Iliya told me they had plans to play in the Netherlands next, where they could hopefully sell more of their CDs as well, which was mostly instrumental covers of popular American songs that they played on the streets.

In Brussels, on the other hand, I was not able to interview anyone but there wasn’t a single place I went that didn’t have music playing either in the businesses or in the streets. The place we stayed was in a small area near the main square, next to the stock exchange building in the city center, so we could hear crowds singing in the streets all night along with the scattered musicians around the area. On our last night in Belgium, a pianist had set up on the stairs of the stock exchange building next door, and was playing “Stairway to Heaven” along with a whole variety of songs he sang along to. At one point, however, he was briefly drowned out by a guitarist across the square who was blasting “Smoke on the Water”. It was like a small battle of the bands between the live performers of Brussels.

By far, my favorite part of the trip was the Musical Instrument Museum or MIM for short. The MIM was a small building in the city center that had hundreds of instruments from all over the world dating back thousands of years. I saw a wide variety of instruments, from a French horn to a drum totem-pole, and even pianos that had paintings inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci on them. Some of my favorites were cellos from the 17th and 18th centuries that had beautiful scenes painted on their backs and the heads of beautiful women on their scrolls.

If you ever get the opportunity, I would highly recommend taking a trip to Belgium yourself one day, and hearing the beautiful, varied sounds of the nation in person.

You can learn more about music and develop your skills through the ArtistWorks music schools that feature instructors from all over the world such as Nathan East, Mike Marshall, Paul Gilbert, and many more talented musicians.

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