In this series we take a little peek at Belgian cities that may not be famous for their nightlife. Of course, you could go out in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent or Liège, cities with a variety of events and parties to choose from every single night - but they are not the only places in Belgium that guarantee a good time. There is more than enough talent in our less-than-obvious towns too, although local promoters have to play a different game in order to overcome some challenging hurdles. You need to be able to do more with (a lot) less. An enthusiastic promoter with a mission to bring quality nightlife to his or her beloved town needs to adhere to a completely different set of (written and unwritten) rules, compared to the ones that control oversaturated cities. So, why not consider a night out in some unknown territory next time? At least now you know where to start…
It’s easy to consider Belgium as a nation with a dual identity of Francophone and Dutch-speaking inhabitants - especially if you take a look at our nightlife scene. However, this wouldn’t be completely accurate. Tucked away in little corner in the Easternmost part of our country, the German-speaking Eupen-Malmedy area has developed an interesting nightlife scene of their own, detached from what happens in Brussels or Liège. The steady rise of Meakusma (see the aftermovie of the 2017 edition below), a niche alternative music festival in Eupen with a loyal fanbase that stretches far beyond, has turned around some heads in recent years. NoName, another immersive and alternative festival organized by a large crew of friends (who throw the occasional party here and there too) are another great example. But there’s a lot more the area can show for.
"It looks like it has been fragmented into different micro scenes, with the focus often shifting on having a good night out with friends, as opposed to connecting with a larger scene beyond their own."
Quite surprisingly, electronic music has been present in the region for a very long time, even though the scene never really grew much beyond its borders. In the 90s, clubs like Pacific/Extra in Amel, parties like Rave Planet or Klangforschung Ost in the Katakomben in Eupen or Alive Festival in St. Vith were the first places where local youth could cut their teeth. Often these were the first times international acts were invited to perform in the area. From the 2000’s onwards, local promoters had put on raves like Bunker in Vielsalm and Mauvaises Pierres or Drilak in Schoppen. The first time the electronic music scene was given a platform, was when the online blog (and later record label) LaMadameAvecLeChien gained some traction for like-minded electronic music enthusiasts in the area. DJ Sofa and Rony & Suzy, two DJ-acts that are still very much active today across the country, both made their first career steps in that era. “Meakusma had its first event 2004 - on the very same location it’s held today”, says co-promoter David Langela. “But not much later, people of that generation started to move to bigger cities, so it became a lot more quiet again”.
In the last few years, it seems that the harder forms of techno, house and drum ‘n’ bass have become prevalent in the area. “More and more young people are DJ-ing and putting on events again”, says Langela. “But the difference is that it looks like it has been fragmented into different micro scenes, with the focus often shifting on having a good night out with friends, as opposed to connecting with a larger scene beyond their own”. With a small nightlife offer, it makes sense that people will take what they can get. But Langela is aware that this needs to be nuanced: “it’s a new generation with a different perception on what a music scene should look like – they do their thing and that’s fine”.
That said, Eupen is not an ‘easy’ place to live as an alternative electronic music fan. There are some bars where DJs can play, (like Esscobar) or general music venues (like Alter Schlachthof), but “there are no real physical gathering places for music fans like record stores”, says William Sproten, a dedicated music enthusiast and DJ from the area. “We don’t have real nightclubs here either, so if you want to go out and have a good time with proper music you’ll have to try your luck elsewhere”. Eupen may be on the periphery of Belgium, cities like Brussels, Liège, Maastricht, Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Trier or Luxembourg are all reachable under an hour. Like many other smaller towns, this puts the local nightlife scene under pressure: why put time, money and energy in your own backyard when there’s so much to offer right next door?
All in all, the region is sparsely populated, which is a hurdle for promoters in any small town. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to attract larger crowds (as NoName and Meakusma have proven), but it makes the job a lot harder for promoters who want (consequentialy need) to think outside of the box. There’s definitely no shortage of events that are “interchangeable in terms of music or mood”, says Langela. “Many of these guys exclusively book local DJs, because that’s what attracts some people, but in the end it leads to a situation where people don’t really care who’s playing anymore”. This stream of ‘easy nightlife’ in the few available venues leads to quick saturation and thus many small promoters are left with parties that are not well-attended. “The population is too small to regularly host nightlife”, says Sproten. “That’s why we try to limit the total number of events, because people would get bored with the same stuff pretty easily”.
Additionally, in a thinly populated area like this, public transport is often non-existent, making mobility between raves and ravers exceptionally hard. But the biggest issue, perhaps, is the 3 AM curfew that’s enforced throughout the region. Daniel Danieli, a producer from the region and co-founder of the NoName Festival concurs: “There’s a never-ending discussion about noise and the opening hours of venues with neighbours, which limits your possibilities as a promoter of any nightlife event. Out here, you really need a dedicated crowd that will be there to support you in order to overcome that hurdle. It’s all made worse by people who don’t know how to behave on a night out. Some of the social codes of conduct you see in bigger cities haven’t taken root here yet. For example: drugs are often consumed very openly, which makes the police crack down hard on everything that can be considered nightlife.
"The countryside can be such an inspiring place with great potential. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper out here."
That made us think: why did Meakusma start over again here in 2016? “We moved back to Eupen after living Brussels for a long time”, says Langela. “Promoting events here feels more natural than in a city just for the sake of it. For us, this turned out to be an advantage. The countryside is the perfect setting for a festival like ours. We know it’s not easy to listen to music for three days straight and if you have calm surroundings where you can go and have a walk, you’ll have more energy to listen to music, which is the way we think we should listen to it in the first place. Out here, you’re not bombarded with distractions all the time, so it keeps your channels open for experimental sounds. As it’s further away from our core target audience, it can be challenging, but the countryside can be such an inspiring place with great potential. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper out here”.
"As we’re becoming less and less able to put in the same amount of energy as we’re growing older, more and more promoters are willing to take risks."
Out of all the routes Meakusma could take in terms of their booking policy, they took the most difficult one. To give you an example: out of the hundred or so acts they have booked for their 2018 edition in September, maybe only Ben UFO and John Talabot would be names a modest electronic music fan would recognize (and even that’s kind of a stretch). “To us, the current situation in Eupen becomes a reason to take musical risks and push borders”, says Langela. “Not only because this is the music that we stand for, but also because we believe that it’s important to give an alternative to the general cultural offer in our region, which is mostly pop-culture and entertainment. That´s ok, it has its place, but we believe it must be balanced by something else”.
So what does that hold for the future of the Eupen-Malmedy area? Daniel seems to be very positive: “The interest in electronic music from a new generation of fans is growing gradually. We personally feel more support with every NoName edition we do”. So does that trend result in more new faces on the scene? “Absolutely – and that’s great to see, as we’re becoming less and less able to put in the same amount of energy as we’re growing older (laughs), more and more promoters are willing to take risks”. Some examples: the NEP:TUNE crew who host proper techno parties in Eupen – or the guys from Strange Agency, who have a roster that supports artists from the area and showcase many of them on their Forest Raves in Montenau. The recent opening of a new club, PRISM, just a ten-minute drive out of town, is great news for the area too.
As far as new artists and DJs go, DJ Caspro, who was recently invited to play a guest mix on NTS Radio, is recommended by Langela: “He’s our local favourite at the moment, he never disappoints”. ÜV (Die Üblichen Verdächtigen aka The Usual Suspects in English) are a small collective of several young DJs that seem to ‘get it’ with their great sense for music, both for on and off the dancefloor. Lastly, stellar aforementioned household names like Rony & Suzy, DJ Sofa and DJ Tape are soldiering on with their projects and should definitely be given a shot if you have a chance to see them.
It’s a very Belgian thing to complain, but overall, it looks like everyone we’ve spoken to is optimistic about the future of this German-speaking corner on the political map. After the latest edition of Meakusma, Langela was happy to see that “the whole city had tuned in to the rhythm of the festival” and that “guests from out of town really discovered the area”. He sums it up real nice: “These are exciting times, because so much is happening, both good and bad. Everything changes so fast and that pushes us to be open for new things all the time”.