31 October 2006
Belgium is a nation divided: 11 provinces, 5 major political parties, three regions, two languages, one king. And all in a country that is roughly the size of Maryland. This generally means that one can be situated in one village, enjoying a beer in a cafe in Flanders surrounded by the calm, introverted Flemish, and then go for a light stroll and wander into the fiery French side of the country. In Leuven, for instance, we are only a few kilometers from the linguistic divide, though you might never know it: French is TABOO. In fact, the Flemish are very proud of their language and will go to great lengths to not speak French: English is OK, Italian, Spanish, they might even slip into Afrikaans, a closely-related language, just to avoid their other native tongue. To be fair, I hear it is quite the same on the other side of the border.
Belgium straddles not only the linguistic but also the cultural boundary between Romantic and Germanic Europe. It was with this in mind that a friend took it upon herself to introduce me to the French side of Belgium. So this past Saturday I found myself taking a 20-minute train ride out of Leuven and on my way to hear the music of one of France's most beloved singer-songwriters: Georges Brassens.
Georges Brassens is apparently a legend within the community of French-speaking Europeans. His music is heartfelt and personal, and his songs are often narratives with morals that appeal to both children and adults. The concert, performed by a very good cover band, took place at the L'Os a Moelle, an intimate private club with little more than a stage, some chairs, and a bar. Both Jacques Brel and the jazz harmonica player Toots Thielemans had both performed here. It was quintessentially European in that there were clearly about ten times as many people in this place as any fire marshall would have allowed, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. Many people sang along with every song. There were tears after the more somber pieces as people reminisced about the good old days. My friend and I sat so close to the stage that I could practically see the nose hairs moving with every breath the singer took. It was wonderful.
Brassens died in 1981, and during his life his music was rarely performed outside of his home country. But thanks to many idols that have continued his music both during his life and today, he has achieved an international reputation. Some of my favorite songs from the evening included "Les amoureux des bancs publics," about young lovers who kiss unabashedly in front of strangers, and "La mauvaise reputation," a kind of semi-autobiography. To read more about Brassens check out www.georges-brassens.com.