Sonic Geography: Antwerp

For MusicWorks Issue #104

With the highly mechanized nautical handling and storage facilities of the world’s fourth-largest port, which moves more than 180 million tonnes of freight annually anchoring one section of the city; and another area crammed with a rabbit warren of workshops used by diamond traders, cutters, polishers and producers which handle 70 per cent of the world’s gems, Antwerp, the largest city in Belgium’s Flemish Region, has long been affluent.

For proof look no further than the neo-baroque facade and gilt and marble interior of its 1905 Central Railway Station, or Zurenborg, an urban neighborhood of well-preserved, Belle Époque houses, served by frequent trolley service from the centre market square for 100 years.

Yet the improvised music scene survives in this city of about half a million people on the commitment of a few. “Overall there is very little work here,” concedes Giles Thomas, a transplanted British artist and musician who has lived in Antwerp on-and-off since 1988. Thomas is affiliated with Bateau Laveau (BL), an arts association which has evolved from a band mixing electronics, vocals and improvisation, to a co-op promoting non-repertoire music, to a record label/concert organizer. For several years BL curated improv sessions on the final Sunday of each month at Huyswerk, an elderly industrial building in North Antwerp. Recently the sessions have been supplanted by four-times-a-year concerts that mix local players with out-of-towners.

Replacing BL at venues spread from one end of the city to the other, are initiatives by other organizations such as logement, whose young members emphasize spatial research, the production of the site-specific artwork and experimental music. Antwerp also has a small noise-music scene, personified by keyboardist/caricaturist Denis Tyfus, who sometimes gigs at the Bar Mondial, a rock venue.

With most clubs also paying very little, advanced improvisers usually work at other jobs. A few are “in pop bands, in trance setups with DJs at big festivals, pick up the odd dollar doing production work, teach or work as studio technicians,” explains Thomas. Even Flanders pioneering musical collective, Werkgroep Improviserende Muzikanten (WIM) or the Association of Improvising Musicians, is less influential then it was in the 1970s, when it demanded proper compensation for locals at the nearby Jazz Middelheim festival. Today WIM’s chairman, pianist Fred Van Hove is occupied with solo work, while WIM’s rigid definition of improv led to the formation of competing musical co-ops. Ironically Jazz Middelheim, now in its 28th year, still mostly programs non-Belgium mainstreamers. Flemish pop music is oriented around vlaamse liedjes, whose stars include the Guido Belcanto, with songs celebrating sailor bars and kitsch, and Helmut Lotti, who croons pop version of classical favorites.

Antwerpenaren like most Flemish people keep a distance from the French-speaking Walloons in the southern part of the country, and while speaking a Dutch variant are wary of Holland. However some Dutch musicians, such as reedist André Goudbeek, who live near the city, are affiliated with both WIM and BL. On the so-called classical side, programs at the Vlaamse Opera House and the Koningin Elisabethzaal are conservative, although Champ d’Action (CdA), an ensemble specializing in contemporary Flemish composers’ works, has been “in residence” at the modernist deSingel arts complex. In co-operation with the Antwerp Conservatory and deSingel, CdA fosters interest in electro-acoustic compositions and interactive installations among student musicians. Fifty kilometers away in Gent, the Logos Performing Ensemble plays so-called serious experimental music.

Proximity to Gent, which in years past had a lively tape-based music scene; and Brussels, about 43 kilometers distant, from where improvisers such as alto saxophonist Thomas Olbrechts and trumpeter Joachim Devillé travel to play with the BL crew, means that emphasis is on Flemish rather than Antwerp music. DeSingel’s mandate, for instance, is to serve the entire area. “A significant aspect of Belgium is that unlike many countries, there isn’t one main center of cultural life,” notes Thomas. “It’s spread out among Antwerp, Gent, Brussels and smaller Flemish cities.”

Happily, more extensive musical outreach arises from the port’s role as gateway to Europe. Antwerp has been an important global trading centre since the 16th Century, and now more than 100 different nationalities live there. “The possibilities for playing with musicians from all over the world are abundant,” reports Thomas, while local players are open to “cross fertilizations and fusions”.

Thomas plays in one band featuring a Serbian Roma percussionist and another whose 15 other members are from Nigeria. Other improvisers such as clarinetist Jean Demey also play traditional Arabian music with oud player Hassan Erraji, while drummer Eric Thielemans, nominally a free improviser, creates music “inspired by my African shaman brothers” and produced a Tunisian singer’s CD. “The African influence is all pervasive here, as is an interest in Latin music,” adds Thomas.

With few subsidies and a shortage of gigs – and with the city simultaneously outward looking from its position on the river Scheldt, linked to the North Sea; and inward looking with its attachment to Flemish traditions – stubborn, advanced Antwerp musicians continue to develop on their own, creating individualized sounds.


Ken Waxman writes in Toronto about jazz and improvised music for local and international publications. This is the latest in his ongoing series of reports on the sonic geography of selected European cities