Play on: a look back at the music and magic of Ancienne Belgique


Music historian Johan Ral delved into the archives to produce a love letter to Brussels’ foremost concert venue, which has weathered numerous storms over its turbulent history

Stories to tell

Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique is a second home for regular concert-goers in Belgium. But not many of them know the venue’s rich cultural history the way Johan Ral does.

A music historian and journalist, Ral wrote a book for the venue’s 35th anniversary in its current incarnation as a Flemish cultural institution. AB: Een muzikale geschiedenis (AB: A Musical History) charts the 80-year story of a concert hall-cum-cultural venue that has survived war, near bankruptcy, ownership changes, and all the ups and downs of the entertainment business.

The book is full of anecdotes about memorable shows – firsts, lasts, galas, tributes, festivals, anniversaries and fundraisers to keep it alive. One such story is about The Cure’s on-stage argument in 1982, leading to the band’s temporary break-up.

Another is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1988 show that resulted in one microphone being forever dubbed “the flea” because bass player Michael Peter Balzary (aka Flea) stuck it between his buttocks.

Visual library

It’s been an exhilarating ride for Ral, looking into the thousands of performers who have graced the AB stage and the vast range of musical styles and movements the venue has seen – from the French Yé-Yé generation of the 1960s made famous by Johnny Hallyday, to pop, rock and experimental, not to mention theatre and dance.  

AB: Een muzikale geschiedenis is an impressive visual library, with not just archive images of performers on stage but also ticket stubs complete with misspellings and wrong dates, posters, Edith Piaf’s contract, excerpts from Jacques Brel’s diary, and a fax from US rock band Korn outlining their dressing room requirements: “Tropicana Orange Juice ***Not from Concentrate***”        

We looked up witnesses, people who had participated in the making of the AB as it is today

- Johan Ral

Ral says cobbling together and making sense of the material he procured in the research stage was not an easy feat. “We didn’t find much structured material in the archives of the AB itself,” he says.

Luckily, Jari Demeulemeester, the venue’s former general manager, entrusted his own collection of material to the AMVB, the Archive and Museum for Flemish Life in Brussels.

“This was a nice starting point,” says Ral. “We looked up witnesses, people who had participated in the making of the AB as it is today. We talked to collectors to get the chronology right as well as the family of the original owners, the Mathonets. And of course there was a lot of material in biographies of the artists concerned.”

Tough times

The research took two years to get right, Ral says. A year after publishing the book in Dutch, he released a French-language version; during that year he dug deeper after people who had read the Dutch version came forward to help piece together missing information. Ral hopes to publish an updated edition in English for AB’s 40th anniversary in 2019.

There have been some rocky periods for the AB – the war years, of course, and the 1970s when the owner, Georges Mathonet, was forced to give the venue up. He no longer had the means to continue when building codes changed as a result of the infamous fire at the Innovation department store on Nieuwstraat in 1967.

But throughout these tough times, the one constant has been the sheer love its owners had for music. And like any successful love affair, it could not have stood the test of time if it hadn’t been requited by the artists gracing the stage. 

Staying power

This is where the essential alchemy happened to give AB its staying power as an intimate and ever-popular concert hall. In the book, local and international artists sing the AB’s praises.

Flemish singer Arno compares playing shows there to the comfort of being in his own living room, while Sicilian-born Salvatore Adamo calls it a passport to greatness, an echo of the Olympia in France and Carnegie Hall in New York.

In the afterword, British pianist and composer Jools Holland likens standing on the same spot where Piaf had once sang to having a brilliant musician’s instrument in one’s hands: It sounds different when it has been played with love.

These people didn’t know each other or even know about each other, but they were all driven by the same passion for music

- Johan Ral

Ral describes his admiration for the blood, sweat and tears shed by the many people who kept AB rocking and rolling throughout its various incarnations, something that couldn’t have happened without inventiveness, creativity and spirit. But what struck the strongest chord was the zeitgeist that began on the day it first opened its doors, and continues today.     

“These people didn’t know each other or even know about each other,” he says, “but they were all driven by the same passion for music and for the performing arts and were willing to take risks and not give up.” 

There are two other areas in which the AB has managed to hold a tune throughout history: its continuous investment in young talent, and sound and recording technology, even back in the 1930s.

Ral believes that this is what has reverberated down the years: the innovation, spark and intimacy that both artists and audiences feel at AB.

AB: Een muzikale geschiedenis is published in Dutch by WPG

Photo: The view from the AB stage, as captured by Flemish singer Milow