The grandfather of Ghent
Although Walter De Buck is known across Flanders for being both a musician and a sculptor, to the people of Ghent, he is much more. Because it was De Buck who, in 1969, put together a music festival outside the Trefpunt cafe in Ghent. Forty years later, we still call it the Gentse Feesten, and it is now Europe's largest music and street theatre festival. Last year 1.5 million people came through. And De Buck is going down in history as a folk hero.
How one man turned an ailing festival into the largest of its kind in Europe
De Buck will turn 75 just a few days before he opens this year's Gentse Feesten on the Trefpunt stage in Ghent's Bij Sint-Jacobs square. His folk music from over the years is trendy once again and, though there will be plenty of admirers present, they'll really show up in full force on the last day of the Gentse Feesten, when De Buck, together with other fellow musicians, closes the festivities with "Boombal Bombardment".
The raucous folk dance bash is a fitting end to 10 days of music, theatre, parties and endless events that the people of Ghent now take for granted.
But in the late 1960s, the Gentse Feesten, a tradition since 1834, had become nothing more than a big carnival. De Buck was known locally at the time for his opposition to city developments that would destroy historical districts and for his protest songs. He was busy with Trefpunt, a gallery, cafe and artist hang-out he had founded himself. Trefpunt's twice-weekly jam sessions were attracting so many people, they moved it into the street in front of the cafe.
This being 1968, students and other young people were flocking to this group of hippies and beatniks playing protest songs, and Trefpunt became the gathering place for a new socially conscious generation. Interestingly, De Buck was also appealing to an older generation of Gentenaar because he played old folk songs from their own youth.
By 1969, the time was ripe for a music festival. "It was a success right away, but, of course, I never expected anything like this," De Buck tells me from the terrace of Sint-Pieter's Abbey in Ghent, which is hosting a new exhibition of work - mostly sculpture - by the artist. "It was a very active time, with the protests in Paris and change across Europe. Society was moving. We had these kinds of revolutionaries around us, but we also had the older generation because I was performing the songs of their time, too. It was a very successful formula, bringing the two together."
It still is. One of the charms of Gentse Feesten is that it hosts every imaginable genre of music, from rock and folk to cheesy cover bands and an entire stage dedicated to old people singing songs in the Ghent dialect. The 20-somethings have embraced the old traditions as a sort of kitsch form of entertainment. It seems almost miraculous that in the 21st century, De Buck's idealist notion of bridging the generations with a music festival is not just working - it's exploding exponentially.
"I don't like spaghetti"
Educated in the 1950s at Ghent's Fine Arts Academy, De Buck was offered one year abroad to study. "Most of the students were going to Italy; that's kind of a tradition. But I have always been a bit contradictory," he smiles. "I said, ‘I'm not going to Italy. I don't like spaghetti. I'm going to India'."
He stayed with a guru his first six months, learning philosophy, then travelled around the huge country, studying the art forms. The journey has affected "the attitude" of his work, he says. "It's not a question of giving shape with an eastern influence, it's more the mentality that has influenced me."
Returning to Ghent, he sculpted a great deal and assisted other sculptors on larger projects, such as the relief that hangs above the city administration building in Ghent's Zuid district.
But it took him 20 years to influence the city with sculpture the way he had done with music. De Buck staged that first music festival as an homage to a 19th-century folk singer named Karel Waeri, who left behind songs that are still used to help piece together Ghent's social history. "He was a songwriter who was very socially and politically engaged," explains De Buck. "He was a socialist avant la lettre - before the socialist party existed. His songs are very strong, but he was almost forgotten. I wanted to bring them to the public's attention."
The fateful 1969 Gentse Feesten did that, but De Buck eventually made sure that Waeri's presence was felt 365 days a year in Ghent - he made a totem-like sculpture that illustrates several of Waeri's songs, which he gifted to the city of Ghent in 1989 and which now stands in Bij Sint-Jacobs.
That was 20 years ago, and it opened the door to a series of public works that now define Ghent's outdoor artistic landscape.
It was the OCMW, Flanders' social welfare service, that asked De Buck to design the "Brug der Keizerlijke Geneugten", or the "Bridge of Imperial pleasures". They had established social housing for the elderly next to a canal in the Ghent district where Charles V was born and wanted to build a bridge - literally and figuratively - from the "royal side" to the "people's side". De Buck, together with members of an organisation he had founded that taught the unemployed new crafts, created four huge sculptures for each corner of the bridge - each depicting the antics of a young Charles, who was well known for sneaking away and infiltrating the surrounding populations.
"As an emperor, Charles was not liked, but as a boy he was very liked," says De Buck. The statues suggest that, left to his own devices, Charles might have run off to drink in the local taverns and marry the daughter of a butcher.
As much as the bridge sculptures are off Ghent's beaten path, are the Morisco dancers in the middle of it. In the very heart of the centre, between Sint-Baaf's cathedral and Sint-Nicolas church, residents and tourists alike gaze up in delight at the Morisco dancers, who look like they have been perched atop the pillars on this stepped gable roof since the middle ages.
But it was De Buck who made and put them there in the late 1980s. The dancers are a traditional decoration for the old buildings that used to house the society of mason workers. Found in Spain, France and Germany, the dancers represent "Moriscos", or Muslims who were forced to convert to Catholicism in 16th-century Spain. The city commissioned them, but De Buck "didn't like this theme of conquering," he says. So he made them his way: the top two figures represent the Indian god of Shiva and the Greek god Dionysus; the next two the devil and his wife and the lowest two a dancer and a musician. "Now it's a symbol of creativity," he says. "The victory of creativity instead of a victory of the Christians."
A piece that attracts nearly as much attention is "The Gentse Barge", a reconstruction of the original 17th-century barge that shuttled the royal and rich from Gent to Bruges. Using illustrations of the original, De Buck recreated it with the help of his son - a decorative metal worker - and, again, unemployed workers.
Strolling through Ghent, it's nearly impossible to not see the influence of Walter De Buck. But it's Gentse Feesten time when he is justly celebrated. The feesten "is not all my fault!" he laughs. "There were a lot of circumstances that led to this phenomenon. I'm just a part of it. I'm like one brick in the whole building."
Seeing the man
18 July, 20.15 Walter De Buck opens the Trefpunt stage in Bij Sint-Jacobs for the Gentse Feesten
21 July, 16.00 "Meet the monument of the Gentse Feesten in the oldest monument of Gent" says the programme. De Buck plays his original blend of folk and protest songs surrounded by his work at Sint-Pieter's Abbey in Ghent's Sint-Pietersplein. Repeats at the same time on 24 July.
27 July, 23.00 De Buck closes the Trefpunt stage, together with other musicians, with Boombal Bombardment, the outrageously popular folk dance craze that has been taking over Belgium for the last couple of years. Expect a couple of thousand people, from teenagers to grandparents, to crush into the area to send off Gentse Feesten until next year.
Until 9 September I thought I was seeing double: sitting below a photo of himself at his exhibition at Sint-Pieter's Abbey in Ghent is the real-life Walter De Buck, watching you look at his life's work. He's there occasionally, happy to chat - or perhaps sell you something if you're so inclined.