When we drove into Brussels from the South East and first thing I noticed was the lush green canopy that filled the car with cool, fresh air. Zoniënwoud park, over a kilometer long was a welcome break of scenery after a long drive through Belgium’s badly paved roads. It was rush hour, and the streets were slow, yet the bike lanes were free and open and the bikes seamlessly slipped along the sidelines of the slow traffic. “I’m going to like it here” I said to myself.
We stop in Ixelles, at a friend’s place, where we were staying for the weekend. They lent us a couple bicycles, told us downtown is easy to find, and invite us out for a beer. It’s the freshest beer I’ve ever tasted. Generally beer tastes like rotten wheat to me, but Brussels knows how to turn this into sweet chocolate. I can’t even believe North Americans drink the piss they do after now knowing what a real beer tastes like.
We talk about the local political climate in Belgium, the corruption of politicians and manipulative ways they hold onto their workforces for low wages with an unstable euro. The incredibly cheap living makes it a great hub for artists to aim for. “They say Liege is the next Berlin” my friend Jessica says.
It’s interesting, the Berlin artists themselves seem to be a bit disenchanted with the rising costs of living, and the amount of competition between artists. It has been a hub for artistic endeavors for over 10 years, so perhaps it is a good time for Liege to take the reigns. Flocks of artists of all types, including street performers, have been coming through town to catch the international crowds that the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western
Europe Conference Center. Combined with cheap living and appreciation for the arts, it’s a dream come true for artists like us.
The diversity in this city is incredible. There is a deep rift of differential power dynamics as the political power swings from Flemish to French and back again every decade. It gives a humility to the individuals, and awareness of difference and identity politics that comes with the territory of having a huge insurgence of immigrants and political differences.
The next morning we find ourselves on bicycles. My hosts were right, it’s an easy and flat 10 minute ride into the city. We are now the ones sliding by all the cars in those bike lanes. We pass many major sites such as the UN Conference Center, Palace Royal and eventually Bourse de Bruxelles.
After passing through the ring-road that all the European cities have, we started riding downhill into the depths of town near the palace of beaux arts, near the beautiful clock tower, as the roads turn thinner and windy. We rode down and down, stopping to find our way a few times, until we reach Marché De l’Agora Bruxelles next to Galerie du Roi 5. Immediately, the first thing we see as we reach downtown are the friendly buskers Roxyr Band. They speak Flemish, unfortunately, so they could only tell us their name, but they were inviting and animated as a group.
Here in the depth of the city, the streets are all cobblestone, and much of this space is pedestrianised, with the odd car pushing through the people. Pedestrians are taking over the hearts of many European cities these days. The newish concept of placemaking is known to make these communities unique and lively, rather than commercialized copy cats of the globalized franchises. They are working on creating more pedestrianised spaces with events, contests and thematic zones on top of this already wonderful space.
Brussels has a notorious reputation for amazing musical talent lining the streets. As I passed through Rue Fripiers Kleernopes we met a group called Fratras from Brittany, France. They were friendly and willing to give advice on how street performance works here, even with my horribly broken French. They said that they loved busking in Brussels, they made good money and that the crowds were open and happy to see them.
Everyone is required to get a license to play on the streets, but because they were from out of town they had to apply 3 months in advance. The license lasts 1 month before you have to renew, and it’s easily obtained at La Maire (city hall). There is one catch: You must have a degree in arts!
Well, that explains the amazing quality of musicians here. According to the band, they did have a member with a musical arts degree, however, they never used it; they just needed to prove they were professionals and then they were accepted. You can also try out for their auditions that meet twice a year, but that’s more difficult for us touring street performers.
They also said they only had the police check who they were once, then their only police interactions were waving friendly hellos on their way by. It’s easy to find information about street performance in Brussels on their website. Be aware: Belgium is notorious for having paperwork completed to the letter! They will send you back if it’s not completed in full.
The downtown core is filled will roaming police officers, and rumours have it that you will be moved on quickly if you do not obtain a license. I decided to tempt fate anyway, and did my own small contact juggling atmosphere act in the grassmarket.
Using (normally forbidden) amplification to back my ball dance, crowds instantly gathered. I told my boyfriend it would only be for an hour, but I instead ended up doing three hours straight it was so enjoyable to be there and I was making so much money. This was supposed to be our holiday after all, but who can resist visiting every busker and trying a taste of the local street culture?
Lucky me, there were no police at this time. This was likely because there was a huge crowd gathered around a hotel where some famous person was staying, and it could be assumed they were busy that day taking care of those crowds instead. If I was to go back there, and I hope to very soon, I would make the effort to obtain a license.
If you don’t have much talent in music or circus, it seems as though giving guided tours through the city was also lucrative. These gentlemen also earned their living through tips and some received grand rounds of applause at the end of each tour. It would certainly be worth it as a summer job!
All in all, busking in Brussels was a treat. It seemed to be mostly a musician’s playground, but the website does state circus acts are welcome. There are a few walk-by buskers at restaurants, including opera singers. It was great to see the streets so lively. At the very last minute before we were about to leave I got to hear some great French hip-hop from this man in front of the tourist information. Then it was a quick dash to get to Valkenburg before nightfall, so we could see the national living statue competition.