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Brussels Meanderings

August 6, 2011

Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel

The blog has been slow in recent days as I try to mix my personal vacation with work winding down and other new experiences. I have just about finished the first week of a three-week break between Formula One races, and it feels as if I have done nothing. In fact, I went on a three-day trip to Brussels just for the fun of it. Naturally I sought out open mics and jam sessions, but because I will later do Belgian jams and open mics in Liege at the F1 race late this month, there was no sense of urgency. That said, I also missed out by a small margin doing a couple of jams in Brussels – but I found some seriously interesting and funny jibing things there nevertheless.

On the first day, for example, walking around near the Grand Place my eye was caught by a unicycle and juggling equipment in a store window. I then noticed that the store was a sheet music shop. As I juggle and unicycle and practice a few other circus arts, and as I read sheet music and play music and sing, I entered the store vastly intrigued. What could possibly be the connection outside of myself of the circus arts and unicycles and juggling and sheet music. For that matter, how could a store devoted 90 percent to sheet music – and 10 percent to circus equipment – possibly survive?

We met the owner, spoke, looked at the sheet music, learned that the Internet had indeed all but killed the industry – oh, not enough to rule out the existence of another sheet music store nearby – and that there really was no connection between circus and sheet music. It turned out the circus paraphernalia came from a relative of the sheet music store owner whose own store had gone out of business, so the sheet music guy took the stuff to try to sell it.

I asked him for information on jams and open mics, and he was extremely helpful, although all the help did not lead me to any jams or open mics.

Around the corner from there we went to the Editions Jacques Brel, which is a publishing company and institute or association, owned by the Brel family. And there is a fabulous exhibit inside in which you go from room to room with headphones and listen to the Brel story and his relationship with Belgium. Very much worth it for any Brel lovers.

So I WOULD find open jam sessions. I was led all over town, and I believe I missed one on the Wednesday night in the St. Gilles area; but more importantly, I missed the Thursday night jam at the Delerium bar by just an hour, as it allegedly starts at 8 PM – that’s what they told me, but the Delerium web site says differently, and my train for Paris left just after 9, but I had to get to the station in advance. Delerium, a massive and lively bar, also has a jam on Sunday nights. And across the street from this huge pub is another big pub that also has a jam on Sunday nights. Check ’em out if you’re there.

By the way, we also toured the musical instrument museum, which presents a fabulous history of instruments from around the world and through the ages, and to which you can listen with headphones as well. And there was a live act of a woman on a harp and singing Celtic music, of which I grabbed a little morsel.

Classics Continue at Ptit Bonheur: Le Plat Pays de Brel

December 15, 2010

Did Ollie Fury, the host of the open mic at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance, get an idea from Thomas Stock? Last week I posted a recording of Stock singing Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise” and I commented on how I wished more of the young generation of French singers would sing some of the French classics, instead of just the English rock songs. Yesterday, Ollie did a fabulous rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Le Plat Pays.” But remember, Ollie is one of those people who is as French as he is American in his upbringing and language abilities – when he speaks French, you think he’s French, and when he speaks English, you think he is American – so he can honestly lay claim to any English or French (or Belgian) music that he wants….

I am frequently asked by French people if I sing in French, and my usual response is: No. The thing that has always stopped me from singing in French is that the only French songs I ever wanted to sing were those of Jacques Brel, and I felt I could not get close to his sound, nor could I add any of my own interpretation with authority or interest. So I always found myself doing NO French songs. (The only exception is last year I suddenly got the idea to do the French rock group Telephone song “Un Autre Monde.” I still have not memorized the lyrics, though, and the rhythm ain’t right – but I put a recording on my myspace of it, done in my living room the night I learned it.)

But I also feel that singing Brel is not only a stumbling block for me. It is difficult for anyone to do convincingly and well and to bring something new to. Brel was such a monster of a performer, and his voice so distinct, that, good luck. But last night Ollie, after two or three false starts, got really into the song and did a fabulous job, as you will hear on the video below that unfortunately I recorded only with my iPhone 4, having again left my Zoom Q3 at home….

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