Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Musique Acoustique promotes bluegrass music in Belgium

They take tradition seriously in Belgium, and that devotion to the cause extends to their musical mantra as well. 

Musique Acoustique — translation: Acoustic Music — has been around since 1985 and has become a primary proponent for promoting bluegrass and other traditional sounds in Belgium. The group’s twelve volunteers organize concerts, their own bluegrass festival, and host workshops on an annual basis. They’ve achieved some well-deserved recognition in the process, having presented such singular stars as Dan Crary, Sierra Hull, Uncle Earl, and The Flat Mountains Girls as part of their programming. 

We recently spoke with one of the organization’s prime movers and its president, Sébastien De Conynck, who is also a member of the Belgi’n bluegrass band Straps, and we asked him to describe the group’s musical mission.

So how did this organization come about? 

It all started with a meeting between a Belgian guitarist named Jacques Stotzem and some friends of his who became the founding members of the association… and still remain members even now. It began with a workshop here in our town of Virton. The following year, Jacques invited a harmonica player to come and teach at the workshop. That workshop was the original cornerstone of our association, and it still exists. It now consists of 14 different workshops — among them, fingerpicking guitar, vocals, gypsy guitar, blues guitar, double bass, harmonica — and of course, bluegrass music is well represented with different bluegrass workshops that focus on mandolin, dobro, banjo, double bass, and flatpicking guitar. The internship attracts approximately 130 people each year, with students and professors who come from all over the world, including Belgium, France, Germany, Slovenia, Denmark, Ireland, and Great Britain. We even have a Japanese professor and a student who came from the United States for the fingerpicking workshop.We call these sessions International Workshop of Acoustique Music of Virton, Virton being a town in the south of Belgium near the French border.

Who is currently involved in this effort?

In the beginning, there were only a few members. They were people who hosted a local radio show on acoustic music. They would play Jacques’ records, and after subsequently meeting him, they invited him to teach at Virton’s first workshop. We now have ten members and I am the president of the association

What was your motivation to become involved?

I bought my first bluegrass album after one of those workshop. I was actually the first student of the Virton workshop before joining the staff. I fell in love with Doc Watson’s album Riding That Midnight Train, and it was that album which helped me to discover bluegrass music in greater depth. The second album I bought was a Tony Rice album, either Native American or Me and me Guitar —  I don’t remember — but regardless I fell in love with bluegrass music. After I perfected my bluegrass guitar, I discovered the mandolin. I learned the music at the Virton workshop. I’m 38 years old, so I haven’t been a member of the association from the start, but I learned flat-picking guitar and mandolin at this workshop, and in the process, I discovered bluegrass music as well.

So what do you see as your mission nowadays?

Our mission is to promote acoustic music. Acoustic music and bluegrass are natural forms of music that are not sufficiently represented here in Belgium. When you turn on the radio here, it’s difficult to hear that kind of music. Commercial music takes precedence. Our goal is to promote acoustic music and bluegrass primarily.

So how are you carrying out that mission?

We organize different events. The International Workshop of Acoustic Music of Virton takes place in April and offers a week of lessons. Our instructors include a dobro player from Slovakia, a mandolin player from Denmark, a banjo picker from Spain, and many more. We also organize a mini course that includes three days of lessons in the fall. During these teaching events, we organize concerts every evening. Students and the teachers can play together every evening. The Virton workshop is well known here in Europe. We are the first music workshop in Europe to have offer flatpicking guitar.

What sort of live music events do you feature? 

We’ve been organizing a roots music festival since 2005, the Hamawe Roots Festival. At each festival, bluegrass music is strongly represented. We have already welcomed several different old-time music and bluegrass music artists from the USA — The Wilders, Uncle Earl, and The Flat Mountain Girls, among them. Our festival became the very first bluegrass festival ever organized in Belgium

We also organize bluegrass concerts in our area. We invited Dan Crary to play in 2004. Two years ago, Sierra Hull came to play here during her last European tour. She will be our guest again in December of this year. Of course, many Belgian and European bluegrass artists have also been invited to play during our events We are currently preparing the next Hamawe Roots festival for June 2022, and a few days before that festival we’ll be presenting a concert by Seth Mulder and Midnight Run from the USA.

How have your activities been impacted by COVID?

We have had to cancel all our workshops and concerts since March 2019. The situation is better now in Belgium, so we are confident. At the end of October, we are organizing our mini workshop in Virton and we have started to organize a few concerts again. We are happy to be back.

For more information, visit Musique Acoustique online .

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.