Lais is a unique group that has no equivalent, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world of music. This seven-piece band from the Flemish region of Belgium is fronted by three alluring young women, Jorunn Bauweraerts, Annelies Brosens and Nathalie Delcroix, who sing, move and gesture in a highly dramatic manner while singing beautiful harmonies, occasionally a cappella, but more often to an eclectic accompaniment that ranges from the downright folky to something closer to electropop. Lurking behind them are four men: Fritz Sundermann, who picks a variety of electric and acoustic stringed instruments and also plays harmonium on this recording, Hans Quaghebeur on squeezeboxes, hurdy-gurdy and whistle, the percussionist Ronny Reuman and Bart Denolf on electric and acoustic basses. They consider themselves to be part of the folk scene, and most of the songs that they perform are either traditional or sound as though they could have been.
So the Spice Girls they ain’t! Closer to the Irish band the Corrs, perhaps, but Lais is altogether a classier act. Indeed, Bauweraerts and Brosens studied singing at the Ghent Conservatoire, although Delcroix trained as a teacher and stumbled into the group almost by accident after having been a friend and fan of the original duo. Coming from Flanders and singing about half their repertoire in their native Flemish might be thought to limit their wider appeal, but they have actually played concerts in China, South Africa and, closer to home, France. They were even noticed, favorably, by fRoots magazine in July 1999.
If I have described Lais’s style as dramatic, you may guess that I have seen them perform live. In fact I saw them at Dranouter, Belgium’s biggest annual folk festival, last summer and Dranouter is where the group first made an impact, in 1996, on a public that included a highly impressed Emmylou Harris. The dramatic quality comes across well on this CD, even if mere listeners can’t see the three women doing their stage business. (This might have been a suitable occasion for an interactive CD that gave some flavor of the live performance, instead of the bonus disc — of which more later.)
The opening song, “Doran,” composed by the group, sets the theatrical tone well. The lyrics are folky (in Flemish) but the music begins with throbbing electronics and insistent percussion and continues with prominent electric guitar and bass. The mood changes completely for the second track, a lyrical traditional French song “Belle qui tiens ma vie,” the tune of which will be familiar to anyone who knows Peter Warlock’s pseudo-renaissance “Capriole Suite.” Incidentally, Peter Warlock would have made a wonderful pseudonym for a contributor to GMR, had not the Welsh composer Philip Heseltine got there first! Lais sing this song a cappella and are joined by the male voice of guest Ludo van Deau.
The a cappella sound, which presents Lais’s harmony singing at its best, is also heard on a song in Italian, “Benedetta,” written by Eidel and Galeazzi, who are not further identified (there is no information about any of the songs apart from the lyrics and composer/arranger details). Latin-derived languages come off well on this disc, because the ninth track, “Marider” is sung in what must be Provençal or Occitan: it was written by Mari and Rosa di Peira, whoever they may be, but once again sounds like a traditional piece with its insistent refrain and quirky hurdy-gurdy solo from Quaghebeur, followed by some virtual a cappella with minimal percussion and intermittent acoustic guitar. Perhaps most unexpected from the linguistic point of view is a song in Finnish, “Tina Vieri,” learnt from the Finno-Swedish folkgroup Hedningarna but given a very Lais-like treatment, mixing electronic effects and bouncy accordion passages.
There are three other French songs on the CD. The rhythmic “Le Renard Et La Belette” sounds like a traditional dance-tune with words added. It would work just as well as an instrumental and indeed has an instrumental bridge on acoustic instruments that leans towards the Celtic, thanks to the whistle-playing of Quaghebeur. Also in French, “Les Douze Mois” was apparently written by Lais themselves but the lyrics are highly traditional in form, with a lover listing the gifts he will bestow on his beloved on the first, second, third, fourth and fifth days of the year. This piece of folkrock ends at this point, fortunately not living up to the twelve-month marathon implied by the title. Showing the group’s ability to vary the mood, the final piece in French, “Comme Au Sein De La Nuit,” is a mysterious song, written by Bauweraerts, of love sought and lost in a symbolist’s landscape, accompanied very effectively only by simple percussion.
Naturally the group presents several songs from its Flemish repertoire: “Kanneke” deals with the oldest ballad subject in the world and explains what happens when Dianneke (little Diane) carrying her kanneke (a little pot or jug) meets a handsome youth in the moonlight. Quaghebeur is back in prominence with his dancy accordion, while Sunderman plays catchy mandocello. “De Valse Zeeman” (pronounce it and you‚ll guess that it is about an unfaithful sailor!) sounds exceedingly traditional, even if it was written by Brosens, and captures beautifully the mood of the maiden left waiting by the shore when her lover sails off to enjoy the company of brown girls in other lands. Sunderman’s tuneful mandocello (or perhaps it is his guitar) completes the mood perfectly.
The title track of the CD, also by Brosens, is a tale of strange goings-on among the nuns of the Ghent beguinage in olden times, introduced by Quaghebeur’s jaunty accordion. It leads on to another piece of a cappella, Bauweraerts‚ song “Klaas,” in which the eponymous hero, having announced his desire to marry, is warned by his mother against having anything to do with any kind of woman ˆ their various defects are set out in terrifying detail until the young man is put off the whole idea. This amusing piece was one of the songs that made me reflect ruefully on the fact that there is no international audience for songs in Flemish. True, they may be appreciated in the Netherlands and possibly by Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, but compared with singers in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, there is no world out there waiting to be conquered by singers from Antwerp.
The final Flemish song, which also closes the album, is another half-electronic, half-folk composition by Brosens, “De Wanhoop.” The title means despair, and the song is one of vain and frustrated love. Like all of the composed songs on this album, it straddles modern sensibilities and traditional forms and expressions in a way that few contemporary compositions do.
I may already have implied that this disc is likely to have a limited audience. There are not more than six million Flemings, of whom a significant percentage probably have no interest in this kind of music, even if there is a healthy public for folk and related musical forms in Flanders. Even if one adds on the linguistically related nationalities that I mentioned previously, the market for this CD is sadly restricted. The inclusion of four songs in French is unlikely to command a huge Francophone audience and the occasional excursions into other languages are not enough to ensure a wider market for this music. This is a pity: the voices are magnificent, sometimes ethereal, sometimes earthy, always tuneful. The diction in the various languages is extraordinarily good: with my fluent French, my more limited Flemish and my even weaker Provencal, I could follow almost every song without difficulty. Sadly, however, the wider world is unlikely to rush to buy this “exotic” music. And this means that many people who would no doubt be intrigued, impressed and entertained by the blending of different kinds of music, always rooted in the European folk tradition, will probably not get to hear it.
I have already lamented the dearth of information about the songs. I also have a practical complaint about the booklet that comes with this CD: whoever designed it, was not thinking of middle-aged reviewers with weakening eyesight, as small brown print on yellow paper strained my vision to its limits. More seriously, I believe that a multilingual booklet, with information about the songs and their origins and possibly translations too, would perhaps draw more people to acquire the disc. Why, it might even encourage some French-speaking Belgians to find out more about the music being made by their compatriots in the other half of the country. If you have an open mind and wish to hear music that is both familiar (in its roots) and unfamiliar (in its combination of diverse styles) I can recommend this CD to you. I shall be playing it regularly and I eagerly await Lais’s next recording.
Incidentally, a bonus CD contains two alternative mixes of “Dorothea” with different instrumentation (one of them including strings, electric piano and Latin percussion and quite different from the original), a live recording of “Marider” and a new (and terrific) song in French, “Le Grand Vent,” sung a cappella with the addition of an unidentified male voice.
(Virginmusic, Belgium, 2001)