RURAL HOMECOMING FOR URBAN TRAD
Sean Laffey meets the Belgian antidote to manufactured pop
I adore Belgium, the very idea of the place is eccentric even lovable, it's a made up country, a monarchy created in 1830 after a riot at a Brussels Opera. It makes a virtue of chocolate and throws fruit in its strongest beers above all else it has an educated sense of the absurd.
It's mid November and I get a call from Dubliner David Sweeney in Brussels where he is a lobbyist at the EU, (and an electric guitarist in a bar at the weekends, some habits die hard). Have I heard of Urban Trad? Sure have, I'm an editor that's my job. "Would you like to see them? All expenses paid trip the Wallonia and could you interview the band leader Yves Barbieux, he's a bagpiper." Pipes eh? Sold, pack me bags mother!
Up before dawn, a mere matter of three hours drive to Dublin Airport and a cheap Ryanair flight to Charleroi gets me into the middle of nowhere, the hotel TV is playing re-runs of England's Rugby World cup win that morning, while on another Channel there's a lot more jostling going on in a former Soviet Republic. I flick stations , the French Rugby coverage is better, three lads in an open-air studio each with a different coloured umbrella, it's mad and continental they are throwing rubber chickens out of the window, my turn next. I get an urge to check out the local turf, so off I ramble, next door there is a pub (it's closed) opposite is a Caterpillar Factory, about the size of an airport, it's closed for the weekend, no 24/7 culture here then.). I wander around the roads, everywhere interesting is just too many kilometres away, generally it reminds me of home, race horses are exercising on the tarmac road, there's a lazy Saturday air to the place and when I arrive back at the hotel the receptionist thanks me for my custom, gives me two keys, then points out that the key hole on the front door is set up for the local jockeys, "you'll have to bend a bit." She tells me she is tired and is going home. It's Monopoly and I've landed on Park Lane, I have a hotel. As the light fades a cherry red VW Beetle arrives to take to me to Yves' home village, of course we begin by going in the wrong direction, but I've been to Belgium before, I'm not worried.
We are off to see Urban Trad , who are booked to play in Le Bon Villers, a nearby village which is tranquil, deserted perhaps, sleepy for sure and I only half see what it has to offer as the gloomy twilight fades away to a misty early evening, but I do detect plenty of red brick, a fine church and a few hand written signs pointing the way to the gig, which is maybe a kilometre outside of the village. The venue is a basic brick-lined sports hall, and it reminds me of our own badminton club at home, it has a rural utilitarian feel about it, tomorrow it might have a rabbit and pigeon show or a jam contest, you know the kind of place. One end of the hall is filled with a large stage, purpose built for the evening, lots of hefty scaffolding and crash barriers (are they expecting an overly energetic moshing crowd I wonder?). There is a big lighting rig, which would do justice to any festival and looks slightly out of place in this humble setting, but whatever happens we will be able to see the band, lots of lights enough to land a Jumbo by, and the stage is high enough for even those at the back of the hall to catch the fun up front. By the entrance there is a simple make shift bar of trestle tables which gives the room an air of a country market or village fair. French Alsace beer (Jupiler) is on tap and it's a very reasonable €5 for four generous plastic glasses. It could be a good night yet Brendan! (As they say in Dingle).
Sound check over and the band, all nine of them decamp backstage into the warmth of a bright bar. Drinks are offered and accepted and the tables fill with conversations in three languages. Wilfied Brits the band's manager and the Red Beetle driver, has perfect English and a witty way about him, he's taking all of this in his stride, no panic, he tells me jokes and we chat about the down turn in CD sales across Europe, but his bright blue eyes say, "I'm optimistic, there will always be a place for something original and well played" and he's working hard with Urban Trad, with US dates coming in for early March and European folk Festivals showing interest for the summer of 2004... Wilfried makes sure I get time to talk with Yves, although for the first twenty minutes there's a film crew pinning the piper to the wall. TV crew dealt with Yves joins us on a separate "interview table", a huge dish of paella is handed round, glasses of red wine are topped up and the conversation shifts to English. Yves Barbieux is the local lad made good, in Irish terms he's a bit of a Mike McGoldrick, plays low whistles and bagpipes (Flemish and Galician gaita) and fronts this big band. Urban Trad is Yves' concept group, they are Belgium's premier Celtic band, think Afro Celts and you'll get some of the musical ideas.
I begin by asking Yves what it's like to be getting ready to play to his home crowd? "It's going to be really strange because these are the people who I went to kindergarten and elementary school with, they were with me in the scouts and volleyball club, my people, it will be strange to be back with all this notoriety and fame, I might be something of a prodigal son."
"When Irish musicians stated coming to the continent, we saw for the first time what was possible in folk music."
Yves like many a rural youth was enticed by the bright lights of a capital
city and so he went off to Brussels, studied music, and took a Master's Degree
in Education Sciences, (he has a sideline of French language CDs for primary
schools). He became a member of the band Coincidence and from there he got the
idea to form Urban Trad in 2001. They very quickly brought out a critically
acclaimed debut album One -O-Four. Things could have gone on in that
vein, Yves making a modest name for himself on the edge of experimental Celtic
music, until last year's Euro Song contest, and once more in comes that Belgium
sense of the absurd.
While we were cheering either Simon Casey or Mickey Harte (the eventual Irish winner), in a talent contest designed to boost TV Station ratings, market share and produce an instant short-shelf-life star, Belgium had other ideas. Forget the pop idol shenanigans; take a look at the market and voting patterns. The audiences in the European Broadcasting Union are not hung up on Anglo American pap, they can understand music that isn't written in common time and they don't mind songs in minor keys. Pierre Meyer, who heads up the light entertainment department at the Walloon broadcaster RTBF bravely changed the selection process for both songs and artist, he scrapped the idea of a national talent contest and decided if they were going to do something it had better be truly original. His logic was simple, get a professional band that have stage presence, give them a song with a melody line that can be hummed on the commuter tram and with a bit of production…………..
But first back to the Belgian delight in absurdity, the song was written in an imaginary language, Add in some rather un -rock and roll instrumentation, the band featured fiddle, pipes and button accordion, ad some multiculturalism. The backing singers were from the Galician group Ilama, and sit back and wait for the backlash, and it duly came round. Pop writers in the music press wrote them off early as no hopers, Celtic Music was soooooooo 1995, no one wants to hear and see ethnic bands in Europe. Right. Wrong actually.
If the press were against the group, so was the heavy hand of political correctness, Yves and his band departed for the finals in Riga, amid a cloud of controversy, singer Soetkin Colliers was barred from the competition because as a student she had once belonged to a politically active Flemish language movement. (Even though the common language of the group is French, just a whiff of controversy was enough to keep Soetkin at home). Philip Masure took himself off to the Fleadh Nua in Ennis to teach DADGAD guitar and the rest went on to the TV and mimed. Yes folks the Eurovision Song Contest is the world largest karaoke, the rules forbid instruments to be played on stage and restricts the numbers too, no use writing a Euro song for a choir then. So Yves and the cut down crew went through the motions and almost won , just two points short of the Turkish entry (another ethnic minor key concoction and a lady in a very big dress, are you reading this Louis Walsh?). Hence the instant popularity, they'd almost done it for Belgium.
Any regrets, Yves looks at me with a half serious glint in his eye "We were counting on the Swedes, Soetkin studied in Sweden, we play a lot of Swedish tunes." There's a pause for some theatrical effect," they gave us no points." He says with a big moustachioed grin.
In my research I came across a curious reference to Irish music so I asked Yves to give me the background. No time Philip Masure is already talking, a fascinating character in his own right, originally a snare drummer in a Scots Pipe Band in Antwerp, he then moved to piano accordion for Scots Ceilidhs and threw that away after a trip to Ireland ( "until then I thought piano accordion was a normal instrument, but nobody takes it seriously in Ireland do they?" He took up the guitar and is now one of the top Irish style players in Europe, but admits to being a closet flute payer. "I was infected with Irish music, I can't play a thing without putting triplets in it" And the famous Sharon Shannon connection. "I used to visit the St. Chartier festival in France with Brendan White (the Youghal bodhrán maker who is now living in Holland). St. Chartier is really set up for instrument makers, and it's very controlled in a French sort of way, it's all very polite. Brendan's stand was always different he had the knack of generating an Irish session no matter where he went." Philip stops for a breath and Yves takes advantage of the gap. "So ten year's ago I went to St, Chartier and I arrived in the middle of a Sharon Shannon set, I was spellbound. After that I started buying whistles and CDs and learning Irish tunes, I was as hooked as Philip."
But, hasn't Belgium got its own folk music, what about a Flemish tradition, all those bagpipes we see on Dutch paintings? Soetkin thinks about this for a moment and says, "One of the problems is that we have lost the way to sing and play folk music, the material is there in collections but we don't know how it was performed". Philip takes on the theme " This country has always been at the crossroads of Western Europe, since Roman times, it has had so many influences, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish and one result of all the fighting has been that there has been little time to consolidate a culture, we used to joke that Belgians had to work six weeks a day just to make ends meet, so as the country tried to modernise and rebuild a lot of the old traditions were lost, there were collections of music of course and some classical players attempted to pass them off as folk tunes, but they kind of missed the point, the folk ways to make the music had died by the end of the second world war. When Irish musicians stated coming to the continent, we saw for the first time what was possible in folk music, that unbroken tradition meant that things about playing, the grace notes, the way to hold a bow, triplets, the different ways musicians try to solve the same problem, it all had been handed down, it looked so natural, it sounded so right, some of us became addicts and recently a few more have applied that same notion of, I suppose, virtuosity, to Flemish folk tunes. It's still in its infancy but it's happening, there are one or two Flemish sessions now and people are beginning to be more relaxed about their own folk music."
Interview over, Yves don's the pork pie hat and strides off to the stage like a bagpipe carrying Pop-Eye Doyle.
The gig is terrific, better than I had cynically expected it could be, the band rise to the occasion, the rows of kids at the front of the stage (nice touch that) are in awe of the antics, the group are a photographer's nightmare, constantly moving, energetic, freewheeling. The singer-songwriter Perry Rose joins them for a hilarious take on Riverdance to mimed speed skating (don't be alarmed it's Belgium).
After the gig there's more drink, more talk, Wifried Brits asks me, "do you think they'd do well in Ireland " They'd do well anywhere" I say. Maybe muses David Sweeney, "they could do a gig in Dublin with Finbar Furey? " OK, now I have Finbar's number, let's make it happen. Yves smiles again, it's some prospect, a step up from Eurovision? I ask cheekily."Sure we have done that now, and we did it more or less on our own terms, it didn't make pop singers or cabaret acts out of us and we are happy with the publicity it generated, (we'd love to appear on You're a Star in Ireland, do you have Phil Coulter's number?) But we need a career and to do that we have to tour outside of Belgium and we need record deals across the continent."
So did the Eurovision really change anything Yves? Ladies always like the last
word, so in shuffles Soetkin:
"Changed nothing, well he bought a computer and a new Bagpipe, that's all!"
Who you kidding missus?
Photo Credit: Photos of Urban Trad at Folkwoods Festival 2001, photos by The MollisDiscographie:
Internet site: www.urbantrad.com
WIN THEIR LATEST CD, CLICK HERE FOR CONTEST DETAILS
All material published in FolkWorld is © The Author via FolkWorld. Storage for private use is allowed and welcome. Reviews and extracts of up to 200 words may be freely quoted and reproduced, if source and author are acknowledged. For any other reproduction please ask the Editors for permission. Although any external links from FolkWorld are chosen with greatest care, FolkWorld and its editors do not take any responsibility for the content of the linked external websites.