20 Belgian Music Giants You Should Know About
- By : Eva
- Category : Artist Digging, Country Digging
- Tags : 2 Belgen, André Brasseur, Ann Christy, Belgian music, Belgium, dEUS, Django Reinhardt, Front 242, Gorky, Jacques Brel, Jo Lemaire, Louis Neefs, Raymond van het Groenewoud, Rocco Granata, Soulwax, TC Matic, Telex, The Cousins, Toots Thielemans, Triggerfinger, Wallace Collection, Will Tura
- Comment : 0
Digging music in Belgium
Inspired by a book I just finished reading about Belgian music – Belpop Bonanza by Jan Delvaux (in Dutch) – I thought it was time for some “country digging”. What are my favorite Belgian artists or songs? Who are the greatest Belgian music giants the world should know about?
Something in the Belgian water?
Great music has no borders, but it can be interesting to gather music by nationality of the artists and think of what the common demeanor is. Do songs have something in common when they originated on the same soil? Is there ‘something in the water‘? (Uhh, that’s a song by Prince and a great song by Pokey LaFarge as well, but those are not Belgians, so I’ll shut up and focus…)
Who are the top Belgian music giants?
Selecting 20 Belgian music giants is a matter of killing your darlings, I experienced in the process. I decided to create some distance and limit the selection to songs created before 2010. This leaves room for a follow-up post on this one. Let’s decide that the artists active in this decade should still earn their place in history.
Who are those Belgian music giants that I think you should know about? The artists include in this list have a proven record of greatness and often have gained appreciation and admiration all over the world. Maybe there are some in this (chronological) list you even didn’t think they were Belgians. Take a look. Or better still, have a listen.
1. Django Reinhardt (°1910 – †1953) – Nuages (1940) – jazz
Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt is born in 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium, as a member of the a Sinti family. Most of the artistic life of the finest European jazz artist of all times is set in France. So maybe we should speak of the in Belgian born Django Reinhardt, if it matters at all.
His star rises during world war II and is and even though the German occupier doesn’t like gipsies and jazz is music of the devil, he’s left alone.
Django Reinhardt has become the largest jazz musician in Europe, without even being able to read music and despite his handicap. He lost his ring finger and little finger of his left hand in a fire, but he persevered and learned to play again.
Django Reinhardt is at least one of the greatest guitar players in history with his unique, inimitable style of playing. He was and is admired by other music giants such as Duke Ellington, but also by the greatest in other genres like blues, rock and even metal. B.B. King was a huge fan and was heavily influenced by Reinhardt. The list of famous fans is huge: Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), …
2. Jacques Brel (°1929 – †1978) – Ne Me Quitte Pas (1959) – pop/chanson
Belgian singer, composer and lyricist Jacques Romain Georges Brel became an international celebrity in the early 1960’s. He generated a large, devoted following and was widely considered a master of the modern chanson. The in Brussels residing Jacques Brel considered himself as a French-speaking Fleming. He mainly sung in French and recorded occasionally Dutch versions of his songs.
Despite of the language barrier, he became an influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers, such David Bowie. English translations of his songs were recorded by many top performers in the United States, including Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra.
According to SecondHandSongs, one of his signature songs ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ is at least translated into 13 languages: Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Finnish, Frisian, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish!
But just listen to this song: the music, his voice and phrasing speak for it self, no matter whether you speak the language or not. It goes straight to your heart.
3. Rocco Granata (°1938-…) – Marina (1960) – light pop
Son of Italian immigrants, Rocco Granata moved to Belgium as a 10-year-old. Much against the will of his father, who was working in the coal mines together with many other Italian immigrants, wanted another life: the life as a musician. At an early age he played the accordion in his own orchestra in local dance halls. During breaks, he continued to play, having the stage for himself. He made up non-existing songs on which he improvised. At the age of 18 he composed his first song ‘Manuela’. Because he needed another song for the B-side of the single, he wrote quickly some of the lyrics and because of lack of time Granata finished the refrain with ‘Oh no no no no no’. This became ‘Marina’.
This cheerful song became incredibly popular. 40 years later it sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. The song became an evergreen and belongs to the most covered records of all time: hundreds of artists made a cover: from Dalida to Louis Armstrong.
His compositions made it on the records of world stars such as Dean Martin, The Four Aces and Flaco Jiménez.
Nice anecdote: according to the cook at the White House John F. Kennedy whistled the song ‘Marina’ often…
4. The Cousins (1960-1967) – Kili Watch (1961) – pop/rock
A group of friends named themselves The Cousins, after a dance club called Les Cousins in Brussels were they played regularly. They were playing the hits of the moment: mambo, chachacha, cumbia and the occasional rock song. In 1960 they thought it was time for recording two songs for their first single. These were both inspired by old scouting songs with a modern touch: ‘Kili Watch’ and ‘Fuego’. The moment it was released, the radio stations went wild and played it in heavy rotation. It became the first rock single in Belgium that obtained ‘gold’.
Somehow the single made it to Argentina, where the single of ‘Kili Watch‘ is out under the name of Los Primos. The Argentinians are wild about the song and The Cousins received in 1966 a trophy for being the most successful foreign artist in Argentina the previous year.
5. Toots Thielemans (°1922 – †2016) – Bluesette (1963) – jazz
Jean Baptiste Frédéric Isidor “Toots“ Baron Thielemans was a Belgian jazz musician and composer, who gained popularity as a guitar player and harmonica player, but also as a virtuous whistler.
The best known piece of music Toots Thielemans reached billions of people. Ten generations of children know the theme song of Sesame Street: ‘Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street‘. Oddly enough, he only received 37 dollar for it, which was in 1969 the current rate for a session musician at a public broadcast corporation.
His most famous own composition is the jazz waltz ‘Bluesette’, in which he plays the guitar in unison whistling along with the melody. This work has been interpreted by countless times by other musicians. Because of the royalties he received, Toots called the song his Social Security Number, his pension fund.
The eminent jazz harmonica player has worked together with an endless list of artists all over the world: Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Stevie Wonder, Pat Metheny, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Julian Lennon, Zap Mama, …
6. André Brasseur (°1939-…) – Early Bird Satellite (1965) – pop/hammondfunk
He has sold billions of records and his music is one of a kind. Still, André Brasseur is a cult hero. Probably the main reason is that he makes instrumental music, which makes it difficult to remember the song and the performer.
‘Early Bird Satellite‘ is a fantastic stomping song and one of the greatest Belgian hits of all time and one of the most successful European instrumentals ever.
The instrumentals of André Brasseur have been used (and are still being used) as theme or opening songs for radio and tv shows everywhere in Europe.
Recently André’s back in the spotlights, since the release of two compilation albums and his performance at Pukkelpop in 2016.
7. Wallace Collection (1968-1971) – Daydream (1969) – pop
Sylvain Vanholme wanted to a new sound for his band, after hearing ‘Sgt. Pepper’s‘ by The Beatles, ‘Pet Sounds‘ by The Beach Boys and seeing a live performance by The Animals. Using classical musicians to create rock-and-roll inspired him to form a new band. That became Wallace Collection.
EMI liked what they heard and offered to record at Abbey Road Studios.
‘Daydream’ originated from an improvisation on a passage from ‘The Swan Lake‘ by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The long fade out of the song reminds a bit of ‘Hey Jude‘ by The Beatles. It became a huge hit in the UK, Europe, South-America, Australia and New Zealand. On May 3, 1969 it reaches #1 in Belgium.
The greatest success of the song is in the endless stream of covers, in several languages. ‘Daydream’ is also great sampling material: it appears in the list of the thirty most sampled songs ever, published by the ME. Between classics like ‘Ike’s Rap‘ by Isaac Hayes, ‘Funky Drummer’ by James Brown and ‘Good Times‘ by Chic.
8. Louis Neefs (°1937-1980) – Laat Ons Een Bloem (1970) – pop
Ludwig Adèle Maria Jozef (Louis) Neefs was a Belgian singer and an important pioneer for the Flemish song repertoire. His feeling for powerful songs and quality, and his characteristic deep, warm voice made him one of the, if not thé greatest singers in the Flanders. No wonder Louis Neefs has been called the Flemish Sinatra.
Louis Neefs was also the “voice” of Thomas O’Malley in the Dutch-language version of Disney’s The Aristocats.
‘Laat ons een bloem’ is a cover in Dutch of the English version of ‘Leave them a flower’ by Wally Whyton.
9. Ann Christy (°1945 – †1984) – Dag Vreemde Man (1971) – pop/chanson
Christiane Lenaerts, better known as Ann Christy, was a Belgian singer who enjoyed success in her native country and is best known internationally for her participation in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest.
Although her voice was very admired by everyone, her career didn’t take off very easily. Her songs were too refined for pop and she was too pop for the chanson public. Everyone liked her powerful voice, but few bought their records. The admiration and recognition by the larger public came sadly enough more after her death.
‘Dag Vreemde man‘ is Ann Christy‘s breakthrough song in Belgium. The title could be freely translated as “Bye Stranger” and is about the end of a relationship in which both partners have become strangers.
10. Telex (1982-1986) – Moskow Diskow (1979) – eurodisco/dance
The members Marc Moulin (one of Belgium’s jazz legends), Michel Moers an Dan Lacksman conceived Telex as a European pop group with humor… To them, a participation to the European Song Festival was the ultimate joke.
“We had hoped to finish last, but Portugal decided otherwise. We got ten points from them and finished on the 19th spot.”— Marc Moulin
One funny thing about the song ‘Moskow Diskow‘: the band tends to think it inspired Michael Jackson for ‘Billie Jean’, using the same chords. In an interview he said he got his idea when hearing a European electronic group on the radio. They like to believe it was Telex.
11. Jo Lemaire (°1959 – …) (+ Flouze) – Je suis venue te dire que je m’en vais (1981) – pop
It was with their third album, Pigmy world, that Jo Lemaire + Flouze had their real breakthrough. The successful cover of Serge Gainsbourg‘s ‘Je suis venue te dire que je m’en vais‘ was a great hit in Belgium and the rest of Europe.
Gainsbourg liked the version very much. He declared it to be the ultimate version of the song. Who dares to contradict him?
Since 1983 Jo Lemaire has a successful solo career. She sings in three languages: French (her mother tongue), English and Dutch. This makes her “a true Belgian”, and beyond her native country, also popular in France, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands.
12. TC Matic (1980-1986) – Oh La La La (1981) – rock
Arno Hintjens and Jean-Marie Aerts of TC Matic made such a “noise” that it was hard to find a record label. It wasn’t what they called music at the time. So they started their own label, put an album out and proved them wrong. ‘Oh La La La‘ became a hit. Apparently the ears were ready for the European music for the eighties of TC Matic. You might call it blues with the alienation of new wave added to it.
Arno Hintjes started a solo career, under the name Arno. He continued to cooperate with Jean-Marie Aerts, who went on to work mainly as a producer.
13. 2 Belgen (1982-1993) – Lena (1985) – new wave
Belgian new wave band 2 Belgen was mainly active during the 1980’s. Their best known and most popular songs are ‘Opération Coup de Poing, ‘Queen Of Mine’ and their biggest hit ‘Lena‘.
‘Opération coup de poing’ was a cover of Alpha Blondy‘s Brigadier Sabari, a song singer Rembert De Smet had heard during a trip in West-Africa.
The 1985 version of ‘Lena‘ is a re-recording of the B-side of their first single (‘Quand le film est triste‘), in a danceable remix. This version became a true club-classic of the time.
With a band name as ‘2 Belgen‘ (2 Belgians), they make it loud and clear: they make Belgian music!
14. Will Tura (°1940 – … ) – Ik Mis Je Zo (1984) – chanson/pop
Arthur Achiel Albert Blanckaert, the birth name of Will Tura, is a Belgian singer, musician and song writer. Because of his continuous fame, he’s been called the ’emperor of the Flemish song’.
Tura has been creating hit songs in every decade since the 1960’s and has received many awards for his career in music. He was also appointed an Officer of the Belgian Order of the Crown in 1999. In 2001, he was raised into the Belgian nobility by King Albert II and given for life the Belgian noble title Night.
His most successful songs are ‘Eenzaam Zonder Jou‘ (Lonely without you), ‘Mooi, ‘t Leven Is Mooi‘ (Beautiful, Life Is Beautiful), and ‘Ik Mis Je zo‘ (I Miss You So). This last song was composed after the death of his brother, and it brought many to tears when Will Tura performed the song at the at the ceremony for the deceased King Baudouin of Belgium.
15. Front 242 (1981-…) – Welcome To Paradise (1988) – electronic body music
Pioneering band Front 242 is the link between Kraftwerk (early 1970’s) and house and techno (late 1980’s).
In their most active period (until the albums 06:21:03:11 UP EVIL and 05:22:09:12 OFF from 1993) they were leading the way for other industrial and electronic artists, while introducing the genre electronic body music. They make robust and danceable electronic music and paved the way for bands like Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy and Underworld.
Without a doubt, Front 242 is the most influential Belgian music group ever.
16. Gorky (1988-1993*) – Mia (1991) – rock
(*since 1993 Gorki, until 2014)
Gorky was a Belgian rock band from Ghent. The complete song repertoire is in Dutch. Their best known songs are ‘Anja‘, ‘Lieve kleine piranha‘ and ‘Mia‘. After a personnel change of the band, they renamed themselves ‘Gorki‘.
‘Mia‘ has become a classic over time in the Flanders. Originally it was a B-side of another single that didn’t score much in the hit parades. Despite the bad start, the song became increasingly popular among fans over the years. In several timeless lists of 100 favorite singles, it keeps ending in the top 5 or even at #1.
17. dEUS (1989-…) – Little Arithmetics (1996) – alternative rock
The core of the Belgian rock and indie band dEUS are the only original members up to the present day are Tom Barman (vocals, guitars) and Klaas Janzoons (keyboards, violin). (cfr. blog post “Oh No! – Not The Violin!?!“)
The band has developed their own style, with a seemingly chaotic and avant-gardistic touch. Still, you can hear influences from folk, jazz and blues, albeit not always immediately noticeable.
‘Little Arithmetics‘ is the second single of the band’s second studio album ‘In A Bar, Under The Sea‘. It’s got this slow train-like rhythm and the soothing singing tone of Tom Barman. But it wouldn’t be dEUS without a “derailing” end!
18. Raymond van het Groenewoud (°1950 – …) – Twee Meisjes (1996) – pop/rock
Belgian singer, guitarist and pianist Raymond van het Groenewoud calls himself a poet, a philosopher, and a clown. Sometimes his lyrics are cheerful, sometimes they are sad or philosophical.
The singer has a successful career since the 1970’s. During the late 1990’s he made sober, purified songs. ‘Twee Meisjes‘ (Two Girls) was voted the best Flemish song by the listeners of the Flemish Radio 1.
Raymond van het Groenewoud is praised as one of the greatest and most versatile Belgian musicians of all time.
19. Soulwax (1993-…) – Saturday (morning after thrill) (1999) – rock/dance
The Belgian electrohouse and rock band Soulwax is led by the two brothers Stephen and David Dewaele. The two are a very buzzy duo and also active as producers and dj-duo (2ManyDJ’s).
‘Saturday‘ is a single from their album ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’. Here you can hear a remix version from the limited edition bonus disc.
Meanwhile, Soulwax/2ManyDJ’s have toured the globe x-time with their live dj sets and are much in demand by colleague-musicians for their original remixes and mash-ups: dEUS, Zita Swoon, DJ Shadow, Daft Punk, Gorillaz, Justice, Rolling Stones, Chemical Brothers, David Bowie, …
12. Triggerfinger (1997-…) – All This Dancin’ Around (2010) – rock
If you need an example for the quote “The sum is greater than its parts”, Triggerfinger is it. Each of the three members has had careers as a musician in other bands. But since Ruben Block (vocals & guitar), Mario Goossens (drums) and Paul Van Bruynstegem (bass) found each other, you might call Triggerfinger a supergroup.
Before recording a studio album, the band worked on the road to success by playing tons of live gigs. They remain a live band first, studio album second. Their studio albums capture their energy on stage; not the other way around. Triggerfinger: probably the best live band ever.
After reading this (congratulations!), you might think: is there any such thing as Belgian music? The answer is probably complicated, just like Belgium itself. Is there something in common? Maybe, maybe not. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.