Gent into the groove…
Photo: Hilde Braet
This year’s Gentse Feesten, which ran between 15 and 24 July, was a sizzling ten days of revelling during a record-breaking heat wave in Europe. With large stages offering free music on 10 of the city’s squares, there was something to suit all tastes: the feverish beats of Latin dance music, thumping techno, cool-cat jazz, offbeat alternative, and even traditional Belgian sing-alongs.
Festivals are an important and integral part of Belgian culture. Although Gent is by far and away the largest urban festival, practically every city, town and village in the country has its own festival, ranging from the latest sounds to folk music, as well as a fair number of religious processions and parades, despite plummeting church attendance. The kermis (originally from kirkmass, or church mass) is a kind of ‘funfair’ which is still fairly popular in some parts of the country.
Amongst the hundreds of thousands of revellers the Gentse Feesten attracted there could be found skimpily clad teens gyrating on one square, while their grandparents danced cheek-to-cheek on another. Surprisingly, the hot weather kept the numbers slightly down on last year. While an estimated 2 million people turned up during the 10 days in 2005, organisers say that as many as a quarter of a million fewer people turned up this year. Still, the Gentse Feesten is the third largest popular festival in Europe.
Unfortunately, there is a pretty heavy toll to pay for those who happen to live in the midst of the action. Some avoid the noise by going on holiday during the festival. “The Gentse Feesten has turned into a drinking fest,” a friend observed. “Too many people stand about drinking and then they drink some more, until they can’t drink any more.” One group of inner-city residents has even hired a lawyer to try and push the city council to make sure that all the stages wind up their performance by 1 am next year.
Although the festival has retained its original spirit of free entertainment in all its main events, it has succumbed to the apparently irresistible march of commercialisation, with most podia receiving corporate sponsorship. The music on offer is also becoming more commercial, particularly on the central stages.
Foto Dienst Voorlichting Stad Gent
However, those with less mainstream tastes could still find plenty to enjoy on the festival’s fringes. Boomtown on the city’s Oude Beestenmarkt drew a lot of underground rock, nu-jazz, hip-hop and Latin groove acts. They included Gent’s own local boys done good Absythe Minded and the popular hip-hoppers ’T Hof Van Commerce whose dialect is barely understood, even by Flemings. International acts included Girls Against Boys (USA) and Todd (UK).
There are also pay-for events on the fringes of the festival, such as the Blue Note international jazz festival which featured Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans, Nigerian ‘rhythmatist’ Tony Allen, jazzy hip-hopper US3 and the Fado-inspired Portuguese band Madradeus.
For those who want more than music, there was street theatre, a puppet festival and stand-up comedy, which is currently all the rage in Flanders, with notable names including the faux-naïve Wouter Deprez and the nonsensical all-singing, all-dancing Wim Helsen.
Although Gent has had, on and off, a city carnival for centuries, the Gentse Feesten in its current incarnation was born in the late 1960s and was the brainchild of Belgian rocker Walter De Buck and the Trefpunt co-operative group.
“It all began in 1969 with three mics on one podium stacked on two beer crates,” recalled Roland Van Campenhout, a Belgian blues artist who performed at the first Gentse Feesten, in an interview with 09. “Gent in those days was a bit of a dead city… Now it is a vibrant city and that is largely thanks to the festival.” And Gent has, indeed, become a trendy and hip corner of the country.
Diabolic Digest readers and their friends should mark 1 October in their diaries. Not only will they be entertained by the biggest names in Belgian music for free, they will also get the chance to make their presence count in the struggle for cultural tolerance and racial equality. 0110 is the brainchild of Deus lead singer Tom Barman.
The concerts – which will be held in Brussels, Antwerp, Gent and Charleroi – have already attracted an impressive line up of stars, including gritty Arno, mothers’ favourite Helmut Lotti, Zita Swoon, Axelle Red, Zap Mama and ‘t Hof van Commerce. If you wish to support the event financially, you can send an SMS to 3699 (cost: €1.50).
The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang are up in arms at the planned event and have urged Flemish artists not to take part – a call they have ignored. To hit back, the far-right party has assembled a rogue’s parade of minor singers, including Helmut Lotti’s unsuccessful brother, to take part in an entirely missable counter event slated for 10 September.
This article appeared in the September 2006 issue of (A)WAY magazine.
Exploring Belgium’s cultural diversity
September 2006 – Describing the intricacies of culture is like mapping the human genome – pitted with difficulties. Khaled Diab spoke to a number of Belgians to find out what makes the country tick culturally. Read on
September 2006 – Any advice on ‘etiquette’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is up to the individual to decide how much to behave or misbehave in any given situation.With that disclaimer, here is a short guide to Belgian social conventions. Read on
July 2005 –
March 2004 – As one of the original six
founders of the European Union,
March 2004 – As the European Union prepares for a political shift eastwards, its famously Byzantine politics will get just that bit more confusing. The new member states may make the EU’s bureaucratic landscape seem greyer, but the accompanying influx of thousands of eastern Europeans will make the cultural kaleidoscope of Brussels, the city that plays host to so many of its institutions, that much more colourful. Read on
ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.