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Musical melting pot: Brussels is a buzzing place for international bands

Jun 15, 2016
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Listen to four expat groups who are part of the diverse and vibrant live music scene in the Belgian capital

The Brussels music scene is buzzing not just with incredible native artists but also innovative and creative expats, adding a new dimension to the diverse and vibrant scene.

Here, The Bulletin speaks with four such expat groups and artists who form part of the musical melting pot in the Belgian capital.

Border Brothers: authentic American sounds

Describing themselves as "three Americans lost in Brussels", mandolinist Bill Bayer, guitarist Paul Harkins and cellist Patrick Pressley found each other thanks to a shared taste and passion for music. Calling themselves The Border Brothers they have been introducing Belgian audiences to the sounds of acoustic American folk, bluegrass and jazz.

The band was founded in 2014 after a chance meeting at a monthly musicians' meet-up. "We're from bordering states in the north-east of the US so we became the Border Brothers," says Bayer.

The band started playing firstly at non-denominational events called Sunday Assemblies, which led to further gigs gradually around Brussels and Flanders, with audiences appreciating a style of music not very common to Belgian ears. "The fact we’re American means we do the authentic thing. We've been told we sound very American - we can't deny the music that influenced us," Bayer adds.

They are currently writing their own material and have plans for an album. “One of us will write a song and share it, then we try to find our own part - when we collaborate it turns into a tune we all enjoy," says Pressley.

"Brussels is a huge melting pot waiting to happen,” Harkins adds. "I think the local market for music is about to explode - there are a tonne of artists with influences from Africa, the US, and the Middle East and we're at the beginning of it."

Tigers of Eden: epitome of the expat music experience

Further proof that Brussels is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures can be found in another local rock band called Tigers of Eden whose members from different corners of the globe met up after arriving in Brussels.

US singer-guitarist Chris Burns had been "itching to start a band" when he met fellow guitarist Thomas Schmidt at an expat party in 2010 where the seeds of the group developed. They were later joined by Australian Vince Chadwick and Spaniard Fernando Anton on bass and cajon respectively. For the uninitiated, Anton describes the cajon as "a wooden box with guitar strings which allow for snare drum sound, but with a meaty juicy bass drum - it’s a magic box".

All members have EU-related jobs, in the media and PR sectors. However they did not just form to jam on weekends, playing the odd gig. They have been working hard at writing, crafting and recording original material. Schmidt describes their music as having "a classic rock influence - indie rock inspired by UK and US bands".

They have become a regular feature on the buzzing Brussels pub scene and plan to release their debut album this year. "The mix needs to be mastered and coding needs to go on it from the music agency, so it can be played on radio, that’s the next step," says Burns enthusiastically.

Brigitte Stolk/The Dreamsouls: uplifting ambients

Brigitte Stolk is a woman of many talents - singer, songwriter, fashion designer and stage musical performer, who came to Brussels from the Netherlands although was born in Burundi. She is a true internationalist, who describes herself as a product of these influences.

She is also vocalist with The Dreamsouls, formed in 2013 with Englishman Shaun Connor and Malaysian Kelly Teh. They released their eponymous debut EP in June 2013, the music of which Stolk describes as "experimental with a touch of soul and pop, a mix of different genres and cultures - we're very open to different styles".

The Brussels music scene is very multicultural, says Stolk: "If you’re into different styles - reggae, hip-hop, soul - it is a dream for musicians who can do their own thing." The band are working on new material and are planning more gigs in London and Brussels.

Stolk is a singer-songwriter in her own right, currently in studio recording a new album. She aims for an autumn release with the first single already out since spring.

Mannekin Pistols: 'biggest band in the world'

In Septemeber 2014 guitar teacher Mark Baxter emailed his students informing them they were now in band called the Mannekin Pistols and they would be performing in public rather than in a classroom. No pressure then.

"Some of the students were nervous as they had never played live before, so I had to reassure them that it would be OK," says Baxter.

"It's a very different thing playing in public as opposed to a classroom - it's scary but after a while becomes a real thrill," adds singer and guitarist Martin Watson.

Playing mostly rock, pop and blues covers, the band consists of 18 players - Belgians and European and US expats - who began gigging in March 2015. Watson says that "chaos theory" is used at shows, dividing up the set list according to the songs members like to play.

“Normally there are five or six players on stage at any one time, so I rotate them throughout the gig, explains Baxter. "It sometimes can be a nightmare as with swapping players you have to adjust volume levels and get the balance right again."

The band hopes to get more gigs but will this be easy though given the band's size? Watson says it's more about quality than quantity: "The main concern for proprietors is that the bar is filled. The competition is quite high so if you don't play well you won’t get another gig.

"The Mannekin Pistols is unique and could only exist in Brussels, bringing together different nationalities. This is a music city that other capitals are not."

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