Maybe for a folk revival in a country without a popular music tradition, you simply need a band as a kind of metapher or an icon, representing the idea of folk music to a wide public and giving this style a new image.
In that sense it is not really new what is happening in Belgium right now: Laïs, three attractive young girls, leading Belgian folk music to a wide popularity both for audiences and musicians. This folk music icon phenomen was recently seen in Galicia with Carlos Núñez paving the way for a huge boom of pipes and Galician Celtic music; we saw it also in France in the early `70s with Alan Stivell leading to a new French folk wave.
But still, any of these moments, any of these bands have had and have a very special place in the folk music scene: Though commercially successful themselves, they are giving an enormous impact to the scene. The new Belgian heroes Laïs are still on their way up, having yet gained a lot of attention especially in their home country. Now they are embarking for new markets across the world, with a fresh CD deal with an international record major.
Having seen Laïs live at the Tilburg International Folk Festival in January, I was in a way impressed: a group of three pretty girls with gorgeous voices, bringing with them in concert a folk rock band, but presenting themselves in a very professional and attractive way, comparable to rock/pop bands - a high potential for stardom. Still they find the time to start the whole set with a capella folk singing in front of big audiences. Maybe the music style they do is not really new but their appeal definitely: young, charming, yet the right appeal to attract the masses. Just the right stars to lead the folk music to new audiences and new grounds...
So how did the Laïs success story start - and why with folk singing? All three of them had no background in traditional singing - "traditional singing does not exist in Belgium", as Jorunn says. Yet she has a family background in folk music, with her father playing the accordeon. Laïs started five years ago, in a small village near Brussels called Gooik, being famous for its folk music courses. "I have come to these courses since I was a little child. So I brought on Annelies once, in 1996. On the last evening, everyone started singing with each other; and we started singing and everyone was quiet and listening. That was the start. Among the listeners were some members of Kadril, and they said we had to go on and rehearse."
The core of Laïs' repertoire are traditional Flemish songs; so if there is no traditional singing these days in Belgium, where are these songs from? "The texts are from old books. The melodies and the arrangements we make ourselves." It is not too difficult to find those books and songs; they have bought quite a few books in second hand bookshops: "There are a lot of texts that nobody ever used, so we have plenty of texts. These songs are usually not sung in Belgium these days."
Laïs only sing a part of their songs in Flemish; they add to their repertoire French chansons from Brel, English pop songs by Sinead O'Connor, trad songs from Italy and Sweden. As Marc Bekaert of the Flemish Magazine T'Bourdonske puts it, "they seem to fit in a Pan European influenced movement. This generation grew up with lots of compact discs from all different styles and regions. There are only some vague Flemish roots, and the fact that the performers are Flemish people. But their international succes did draw the attention to the growing Flemish scene."
Having now decided to give their main attention to the Laïs carreer, their university studies of their former "normal" life are quit for the moment. The success of their debut album on the Belgian Wildboar label came as a big surprise, having become Gold in Belgium, with more than 30.000 copies sold. Their music is regularly played on Belgian radio, and at the important Belgian Music Trophies "Zamu Award", they were nominated in two categories ("Best Vocal Act" and "Focus on Musical Talent - most promising act") and won the category "Best Vocal Act". No wonder that such a success draws also the attention of the record majors - for their second album Laïs have had a lot of attractive offers from diverse majors, with their final decision to sign internationally with Virgin: "We just signed with Virgin. So we will be in Germany and Europe soon. We are working on the CD and hope to bring it out in October. But it has to be very good so if it's not finished yet, we will wait."
In our backstage talk, the three girls presented themselves as charming, a bit shy and modest. Not like the big stars actually. So how do they explain this amazing success? Says Jorunn, "it's something new. I think the people in Belgium needed something like that. There were some folk things, but they were not used commercially, and we tried it, and it worked." So do they think they have had an impact with their music on the Flemish culture? "Yes. -- Well especially on the folk music culture. We are one of the most well known groups. So I hope that there will be other groups that will try to follow us and try to do something like that."
Yet the current movements on the Belgian music scene are not only based on this band; Laïs are only the tip of the iceberg, the icons to transport the idea of folk music to a national and international audience. Carrying also the flag of success, Ambrozijn present as well not pure Flemish traditions, but mix them with French and international folk music; and this band as well has a very special and strong live performance. Olla Vogola is a folk big band, combining French with Flemish and worldwide tradtitions and other music styles.
Marc Bekaert gives for FolkWorld a short introduction to other bands of the new folk wave in Belgium: "Besides Laïs there is vocal girl power with Dames Noires and Ys, young urban folk such as (Bub), Fluxus and Ashels, modernists as Ambrozijn and Troisseur, as well as diverse combinations in duo or trio: Franšois-Masure, Masure-Piccard (strings), Trio Viool (fiddle), Claeys-Laloy (melodeons), Duo Mandingma (bagpipe & melodeon) and even some solo instrumentalists such as Iep (hurdy-gurdy), Didier Francois (nyckelharpa) and Michel Terlinck (plucked dulcimer). There are also some Balkanbands (Trio Dor, KiMiz and Lioutenitsa), and a few resident groups like Shantalla (Irish) and Ialma (Galician), and Irish playing groups as The Swigshift, Eishtlinn, Galdra and Orion. By far the most interesting acts offer multicultural crossovers, like Olla Vogala, Mo-P´h, Alicantes and Keukkojoen. Finally there are also dance bands as Twalseree, Jan Smed, P.P.R. and La Poubelle in Flanders. In the Wallone part of Belgium there are less new groups (Panta Rhei, Luc Pilartz Band, Co´ncidence, Viridel, Topaze, Crossroads & Borrachoiz). Some of the older groups can hardly compete with all these younsters: Alfred den Ouden, Walter De Buck, Kliekske, Brabant Folk Orchestra and Jean-Pierre Van Hees. The older folk rockers of Kadril seem to have reached the top with their new and young female singer Eva and so called CD."
There is definitely a wealth of new folk music in Belgium, with a lot of new friends of "New Flemish Folk". One of the fans of the Belgian scene is Gabriel Yacoub, having been two decades ago the leader of legendary French folk rock band Malicorne. He observes the scene with great respect, and has given some support as musician or producer to bands such as Olla Vogala or Ambrozijn. "(The revival of the folk scene is) mostly because of the success of this band Laïs, and that is such a big success just like Stivell in France in the 70s. Behind Lais there a lot of great bands - I go very often to Belgium, and I see new bands all the time. It's very good!"
Photo Credit: Laïs at the Tilburg International Folk Festival; The second last photo: (bub).
All Photos by The Mollis
Latest published CD: Laïs "Laïs", on the Wildboar Label. The new CD comes out on Virgin Records in mid 2000.
To contact Laïs' agent, e-mail Bieke Purnelle.
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