Belgium. (From the movie of the same title from 1969.) So here I am, your traveling music teacher, in a country I visited once in 1973. No, I was not inspired by the movie, it was the beginning of my Antioch College Chorus Trip and the second country (after the Netherlands) I ever experienced in Europe. What I mostly remember was singing in a cathedral and a very, very cold shower in a Youth Hostel that had us guys screaming.
When I told my hosts that about visit to Belgium over four decades ago, they independently remarked, “Well, it’s probably about the same.” I take that as a good sign in some ways and my first impression is that sense of antiquity preserve, honored and appreciated. Though I have often been accused of near-pathological attachment to tradition, the real truth is quite different. As simple as don’t fix what ain’t broke and please fix what is. Tradition can be both whole and broken and we need to distinguish between the two.
Meanwhile, my without-thinking-associations with Belgium, some affirmed by what I’ve seen in just one day:
• Stella Artois. The original home.
• Belgian chocolate. Hope to get some tomorrow.
• Belgian waffles. Have one of those waffle-makers back home. Thanks, Belgium!
• Canals and stone arched bridges. More on this tomorrow.
• Cobblestone streets. Great for charm, lousy for rolling suitcases.
• Tulips. Yes, Holland, but here too.
• Wood floors on elevators. That’s unique.
• Ockeghem and Dufay. The two composers whose works I sang on that college trip.
• Hercule Poirot. Brought Agatha Christie’s first book featuring him as the detective: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
• Jos Wuytack. Teacher of my teacher Avon and extremely influential force in the Orff world, though stylistically not my cup of tea.
• The Belgian Congo. Accounts for the black folks I’m seeing here.
This last deserves further comment. Asked to name the world’s worst tyrants, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and such immediately spring to mind. But King Leopold II of Belgium is right up there with them—or beyond. In the late 1800’s, he came down to the Congo and created the Congo Free State (“Free”—notice how tyrants always shackle language to serve them), essentially claiming the country as his own private enterprise. Approved by the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (in that arrogant European way that they had the power and authority to “approve” the takeover of a native population) on the grounds that he would improve the lives of the native inhabitants, he went bat-shit crazy and amassed a personal fortune by brutal and ruthless exploitation of said natives, ending in the genocidal murders of an estimated 10 million!! Take that, Adolf! In 1908, the Belgium Government intervened and took over the administration. For the next 52 years until independence was achieved in 1960.
So here we are again. No nation’s hands are clean and the struggle is not as simple as this country against that one or this political ideology against that one. Never has been and never will be. I have to live with Native American genocide and African slavery and Jim Crow and now Trumpism next to some great films, literature, basketball and jazz and the Belgians have Leopold mixed in with good chocolate, beer. Van Eyk, Magritte and Toots Thielemans. And speaking of Toots and Jazz, saw a poster in the University town of Leuvens for an upcoming concert with Ron Carter and other noted jazz players. The old and the new side by side.
So this morning had a delightful 3 hours with 26 University music ed students from Belgium, Netherlands and Sweden (love teaching this age and so rarely get to!), got on the train to Brugge and have another three hours tonight with more Belgiums plus some from Poland and the Ukraine and then again for six hours tomorrow. (Truth be told and shh!, don’t tell my organizer, I had forgotten about this Friday night part until I was about to board the train. But no matter. At this stage, you can catch me off guard anywhere, anytime, with anybody, and say, “Give a six hour workshop. Now!” and I’m there.)
That’s the Belgium report from your traveling music teacher. More tomorrow.