[by Ken Hunt, London] It is a knee-jerk reaction when evoking Belgian song to extol Jacques Brel and his impact on Francophone chanson. But Belgium is a composite nation, with Walloon, Flemish and German populations. When it comes to articulating what it means to be Flemish, one of the giants of contemporary Flemish song and poetry was Wannes van de Velde, who for more than 40 years defined Flemish culture and defied cultural laziness. The role of Belgium in Francophone chanson is well known through Brel but Flemish speakers produced a parallel song movement, and in that Van de Velde was paramount.
With his accent, dialect and often the subject matter of his songs, Van de Velde was intimately identified with his birthplace of Antwerp – after Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port. He grew up in the working-class district of Schipperskwartier, or ‘Sailors’ Quarter’. In today’s tourist guidebooks this is listed as the port’s rosse buurt – red-light district – but, like most harbour towns, it was and is home to a number of expatriate communities as well. In his boyhood and teenage years it had cafés and bars in which political and satirical songs were sung, and it had a Spanish population, too. Jaak Van de Velde, his father, was a metalworker by day and a singer by night.
These were influences that Van de Veldt absorbed and took with him when at the age of 16 he obtained a place at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts studying a broad arts curriculum. It was there that his latent professional interest in music was awakened. He fell under the sway of jazz, flamenco and, in time, Belgium’s rich and uniquely multi-levelled folk music traditions – unique given the porous nature of Belgian folkways, whereby folktales and folksongs co-exist in Flemish, French and German variants. As a Flemish speaker he was naturally drawn to Flemish folksong and set about studying the subject through the standard literature including Chants populaires des Flamands de France (‘Popular Songs of the Flemings of France’), Edmond de Coussemaker’s account published in 1856 that homed in on the region known variously as French or South Flanders.
During this period he studied classical and flamenco guitar, took up writing and composing songs and fell in with a group of like-minded musicians. He was signed to Philips, releasing his eponymous début LP on the label in 1966. Over the next 20 years he put out a steady stream of albums for the label. It was his peak period for recorded creativity: after 1989 he produced a trickle of albums and branched out into books – among which was his 1999 songbook wrapping up material from 1966 to 1999, De klank van de stad (‘The Sound of the City’).
Wannes van de Velde was a major champion of Flemish-language kleinkunst (literally ‘little art’ the Flemish equivalent of cabaret but n many ways closer in spirit to ermany’s harder-edged Kabarett form. Although he was renowned for Ik wil deze nacht in de straten verdwalen (‘Tonight I want to get lost in the streets’) and his cover hit, with the Dutch musician Hans De Booij, of the Bobbejaan Schoepen song Lichtjes van de Schelde (‘The Lights of the [River] Scheldt’), he could have walked into the tiny, typically Flemish pub-restaurant De Arme Duivel (‘The Poor Devil’) on Antwerp’s relatively upmarket Armeduivelstraat and everybody would know who he was and nobody would bat an eyelid. He was a man of the people.
What else did he do? He elevated Flemish beyond its status as the poor relation of Dutch. He was at the forefront of nothing less than a renaissance and reassertion of the Flemish language.
Willy Cecile Johannes Van de Velde (Wannes Van de Velde); singer, songwriter and poet: born Antwerp, Belgium 29 April 1937 died Antwerp 10 November 2008.