Brussels-based musician Karen McHugh takes a look at some of the capital’s international musicians and the bars and clubs they frequent
Brussels isn’t a bad place to live for a working musician. Quicker to navigate than London and with better-paid gigs than New York, its laid-back lifestyle and cheaper cost of living can be even more conducive to creativity than other cities. The constant influx of expats from all walks of life creates serendipitous connections among musicians who might otherwise never have met. And all of this means more music to enjoy for the rest of us!
Best bars for… covers and world music
Many of Brussels’ musicians make their living playing in the city’s Irish bars. Places like The Old Oak, Celtica and the Michael Collins are well known for their weekend gigs drawing in expats who miss their fill of live music from home. Here you can listen to musicians from all over the world – Andrew Mavin, multi-instrumentalist from Newcastle, Canadian live-looper Akim Triebsch (aka Mystery Tramp), Peter O’Malley, along with guitar genius Steve Jones, all playing a mix of covers interspersed with their own songs.
Other good places to enjoy shows are Live Music Café at Bourse which, true to its name, boasts performances every night, with as diverse a blend as hip-hop, rock, pop and folk, and the Wednesday evening acoustic nights at Hard Rock Café, whose sound system is second to none. And if it’s a cultural re-education you’re after, don’t miss La Porte Noire on a Thursday night, with its mix of Celtic music, rock and roots gigs. Fantastic female duo Formiga and Cigale often grace the stage of this underground lair, playing their charismatic blend of folk-fusion. The harpist and violinist sing and play their way from Barcelona to Belgium, taking in Ireland and Scotland on their way.
Singer-songwriter nights and jam sessions
Taking place every second Thursday of the month, this is a revival of a singer-songwriter showcase night started many years ago by Brussels’ musical expat population. Recorded live with band interviews for new station Radio X, the concept has proved popular for fans of original music. Established and hosted by musician Andrew Mavin in June of last year, the monthly event has grown ever since, culminating in 2013 with a Christmas special bringing back ten top acts of the year. Held in the cosy confines of Scott’s Bar, each night is something special, always with a mellow, acoustic vibe and an encouraging audience. With the electrifying sounds of Madé J, the cool, funky tones of The Fix and the soothing harmonies of Balagan, there’s a lot of music to be discovered. We’ve also got our eye on Little Things, a young international band who are destined for success!
Other participative nights around the city include the Jam session at Bizon on Monday nights, along with open mic nights at Floreo and Lava Café, both in St Géry.
If you’re seriously into your music and you’re on a constant quest to discover new bands, check out the Soirées Cerises music nights. This is a project by Belgian Frederick Bulté, who it’s fair to say is genuinely obsessed with music. He organizes a plethora of concerts at Rock Classic Bar in the city centre, with bands from all over the world, both visiting and resident in Brussels, coming to play. He also arranges home concerts – intimate acoustic sets which often sell out well in advance. His passion is for giving new bands and artists a platform on which to showcase their talent. Don’t miss also the annual Fete de la Musique celebrations in Tower Art Gallery (TAG) at Rogier, with four rooms of continuous music on one night in June – a convivial mix of Belgian and international musicians. Promising artists we’ve heard from the past two years include the recently-signed Anwar from Morocco and emerging Belgo-Italian indie band Ambulance.
Going your own way – or serendipity
As the bands rise through the ranks and arriving international musicians find their way on the scene, it can all be about meeting the right person. Rising Sparks are one such band. Lead singer Adrien put an ad online to find musicians, and was joined by Finnish guitarist Mika. Together they formed the five-strong group. Taking part in the many tremplins (showcases) organized in Belgium, they made their way up the ladder with their own compositions, eventually recording an EP and ending up as finalists in last year’s Hard Rock Rising talent search. And on the other end of the spectrum is Bai Kamara Junior – a solo artist who has made his stamp on the Belgian music scene over the past twenty years. Known for his support of Amnesty International and other aid organisations, this Sierra Leone native frequently plays in Brussels, and his songs of peace, love and politics have earned him his place at key festivals both in Belgium and beyond.
As you can see, there’s plenty of talent roaming around the bars and clubs of Brussels. And with such diversity, you can experience music from all around the globe. Go forth and support your ‘local-expat’ musicians!
Photos: Bai Kamara, photo Michael Chia
Karen Mc Hugh live