Unknown Territory: Genk

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In this new series, we shine a light on the less-than-obvious music scenes. You may have to drive to Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent or Liège for a proper nightclub visit, but a big night out is not exclusive to our sizeable cities. Sometimes, you have to look to the most unexpected places to discover the most interesting music scenes. If anything, an event promoter’s true challenge is found in our provincial towns: doing more with (a lot) less. Even though the number of party people is considerably smaller here, some dedicated people are determined to bring quality electronic music to these small corners. Why not switch things up next time and visit some unknown territory? At least now you know where to start.

For our first part in this series, we look to Flanders’ easternmost province: Limburg. The province capital (and biggest city) Hasselt has developed a healthy nightlife scene, in large part due to the continuous waves of big names that get invited to its handful of proper nightclubs. But Hasselt has a little rebel brother, just 15 minutes away: Genk. In 2013, this decentralized town of 65.000 inhabitants became the first city in Belgium where ethnic minorities make up more than 50% of its residents. In large part, that’s a direct result of this place being a mining centre for most of the 20 century. This is probably the reason why most Belgians know this place – that, and its football club, of course. But Genk has a lot more to offer than just goals (or the lack thereof). A varied collection of different occasional events like Taxi Tanzbar, Genk On Stage or Absolutely Free Festival have turned the odd music fan to this Eastern corner. And they do so for very good reason. Names like Losco or Kiani & His Legion have risen above their municipality and exported their music to clubs worldwide. It may not be Berlin, London or Amsterdam, but something is brewing here. And we were determined to find out what.

All the people we have interviewed for this feature agreed on one thing: if there is a music scene in Genk, it’s a very small and heterogeneous one. “Music fans here are too diverse, so it’s difficult to satisfy everybody”, says Lomme Valkeneers, co-promoter at Huiskamer and associate at Extrema Outdoor. “In fact, the niche market for any particular genre is too small, so it’s hardly possible to fill a venue with one type of music on a regular basis”. Arnaud Wolters, coordinator at Rondpunt 26 and Genk On Stage agrees: “There is not one event formula that will guarantee success – that gives the promoters room to experiment, but obviously it leads to a lot of frustration”. Alberto Mazzoni aka Ikke from the local hip hop collective Onze Zaak agrees: “the small scene is extremely varied. There’s not a lot of contact between genres, and even within the small hip hop scene, you still have islands operating without any communication between one another”. Often, this can be a result of not having a central meeting point where people can exchange music and ideas.

The first problem aspiring promoters encounter, is the lack of a suitable venue. Rondpunt 26 (often putting electronic music nights under their ‘Club 26’ banner) is more or less the only venue that’s open to alternative artists – but that only happens on an irregular basis. Luckily, this place receives some well-needed financial help from the municipality. This is the reason why most of their events attract people from a younger age group, as this is the target group of such subsidies. “In large part, the younger generation here is not concerned with genres”, says Valkeneers. “’Huiskamer’ is our best example of that. Initially just a meeting point for young people, grew into a regular event on which you can hear DJs play Tame Impala, Prince, Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar tracks played one after the other”. Only recently, the old city hall in Genk was repurposed as a creative space called ‘Jungle’. “It’s a place where any young, creative person gets the chance to do propose their ideas – even if that means something with music”, says Alberto Mazzoni. “Things have definitely gotten better here. The municipality is trying everything in its power to give chances to young artists”.

These are all much-needed initiatives that support the younger generation of music fans, but for the older clubbing folk, options are almost non-existent. “For the older club crowd that loves alternative music, there is no real regular option – and often they have to look for it in other places”, says DJ and producer Thomas Neyens aka Kiani & His Legion. “Not long ago, the conversed old mining building ‘Thor Central’ was the scene for a proper techno rave with Ghent’s Kompass club, who invited Len Faki. But in general, people who value alternative culture often seek refuge in Hasselt, Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent”, adds Pukkelpop-associate and Taxi Tanzbar co-promoter Simon Nowak. Nevertheless, it is a positive signal that the municipality is willing to support initiatives like Jungle or Rondpunt 26 in various degrees. 

Another way culture gets an extra push her only become visible once the festival season kicks in. Summer events like ‘Absolutely Free Festival’ and ‘Genk On Stage’ (who pride themselves of being community driven and offering quality music for free) make use of that support by offering a place beneath the spotlights for local talent, from whatever scene they may come from. Because of their balance between these names and bigger acts, these events are probably the best opportunity to see Genk artists in front of a sizeable and enthusiastic local crowd.

With a lack of open-minded clubs and a returning nightlife audience, promoters are usually forced to host their parties only occasionally, mostly in places that host music events only every now and then. The best example of this is Taxi Tanzbar, a yearly house party that has been hosted by Thomas Neyens, Filip Grossard and Simon Nowak for more than 7 times now. Despite the incredibly long intervals between editions, this event has amassed a close and enthusiastic following. “We keep it small and cosy on purpose, and that’s what attracts our audience”, says Neyens, probably the name that rings the most bells of the trio. Neyens is mostly known for touring around in Belgium and beyond under his successful Kiani & His Legion moniker, which took him to infamous dancefloors like the one at Panoramabar in Berlin. However, the We Play House Recordings affiliated producer prefers to keep it sober. Neyens continues: “I’ve never had the feeling that the music we play is alive in Genk. There are not many others that do similar things than us, because we lack a cohesive scene of artists, DJs and promoters”. One headliner, simple communication and not too many parties a year. That recipe seems to be working for Taxi Tanzbar in a divided city like this.

Even though Taxi Tanzbar may have found its groove, that doesn’t mean its formula works every time. “Each different concert or party requires a different approach in terms of communication”, says Arnaud Wolters. There are occasional one-off DJ-sets in local bars around town, but these lack a clear organisation. “The opportunities for DJs are not plentiful in Genk”, says Gijs Vermeulen from the local house and Italo record label Kasset. “When the opportunity does come by, they are mostly looking for DJs that can handle a diverse (read: accessible) bar crowd”.

The fact that Genk is a very decentralised city doesn’t help. Many different residential areas from the 50s and 60s were built around mining facilities. Nowadays, these worker districts (cité’s) have outlived the mines and they have created a cluster of different ‘villages’ that encircle a very spacious downtown (at least, compared to other Belgian cities). This creates a situation where young people aren’t necessarily inclined to leave their districts, as travelling to another suburb can pose an inconvenient hassle for young people without a car. “The costs to live near the centre are a lot higher in comparison, so the people living there tend to have a higher average age and income”, adds Nowak. “So in general, there is a lot less demand and support for music initiatives – let alone something a little more alternative”.

What about a record store? Despite its relatively long distance from the centre, George & The Bear is a recent initiative that gets some good feedback across the board. Located in the Winterslag suburb, this coffee and vinyl hub attracts a good share of the local like-minded music lovers: young and old, rockers and DJs. With an excellent selection of music, the occasional live or DJ-session, this place does things right, which is most definitely remarkable for its location.

For all the things that work against the electronic music scene, there are actually some advantages. One of which is the fact that you really have to put the work in to attract attention. “The lack of a big audience or network that can launch your career makes sure you have to work a lot harder to be heard”, explains Alberto Mazzoni. “Therefore, artists are able to create their own signature style a lot faster. You need to have a good work ethic and a lot of passion if you want to be picked up”. So whenever a party or artist emerges from these parts, you can be sure they are worth looking into. “The beautiful thing about such an unorganized scene is that everything is done from the heart”, adds Neyens. “When promoters put on an event, they do it because they love the music and not because they count on a big turnover. There is not a lot of ‘fakeness’ here”.

When we asked which genre wins the most hearts over here, all our interviewees unanimously agreed on hip hop. “With Genk’s multicultural demography, hip hop has always worked better here”, explains Nowak. “Not so long ago, local rap laced with ‘cité-slang’ was really booming”. As for as this subject goes, the guys from the Onze Zaak collective seem to have been mentioned the most when we asked which local artists are most popular over here. The guys themselves were eager to point out other colleagues. “Chaz & Djalu are a duo of from around here that have really put in the work over the last few years”, explains Alberto Mazzoni. “And so is Chahid, a young hard-working rapper that has made some very clever collaborations with Dutch artists like Lijpe. And of course we shouldn’t forget Tiewai, who has been going for a while and has definitely put Genk on the map when it comes to hip hop”. Even though the quartet of beatmakers Losco have thrown in the towel after their impressive success that has brought them tours across the US, Canada and Australia – most of them have gone solo, most notably Explore, Corona and Johnny September.

So next time you’re looking for something new to listen to, why not explore check out some local beats from this corner of our country? Tired of visiting the same clubs or festivals every time? Just check out when the next Taxi Tanzbar, Genk On Stage or Absolutely Free Festival takes place. We bet you’ll be surprised by the quality and enthusiasm this diverse mining town has to give. 3600 represent.