On his fourth album ‘Komma’ (Comma) Tonnie Dieleman, alias Broeder Dieleman, tells tales from and about his native soil, the district of Axel in Zeelandic Flanders. Because you just do not feel as connected to anywhere else as the clay where you were born and raised. A lesson that more and more musicians in the Netherlands are taking to heart, since pop music sung in dialect is on the march.
By Benjamin van Vliet, translated by Scott Rollins
Dieleman’s work is inextricably linked to the place from which he hails. Four albums and three EPs long he has been singing in Zeelandic-Flemish dialect, about the Zeelandic landscape and the small things in life that each time bear the great universal themes. For the singer who was raised as a Protestant believes that to find meaning in life you must go back to the source. “Connection with your surroundings is needed to feel grounded, I think. And there isn’t a place where you can feel that as potently as the place you grew up in. A relationship like that can’t really be reached again with any other place.”
But the fact that relationship is not without pain, guilt and nostalgia is apparent in the first single ‘De groeten’ (Regards) from his new album ‘Komma’. It is a drunken tirade about the Zealand waterfront, about “all that was familiar and will never come back”. “Zeelandic culture is simply disappearing. Forty years from now it will all be gone. The Zeelandic landscape formed over centuries of various activities – draining, flooding, building a house here, a castle there – has been crisscrossed by all sorts of roads and swept from the face of the earth to build factories. That change has been brutal.”
The Zealanders themselves appear remarkably unconcerned by the disappearance of their culture. Hardly any attention is paid to music from Zealand, even in the regional media. “Omroep Zeeland (The Zealand Broadcasting Company) is really terrible at safeguarding and preserving Zeelandic music. That is sad, I think. They broadcast an hour of music from Zealand twice a week, mixing everything up, without giving it any thought or structure, and that’s that. At first they didn’t even want to play my music because they thought it was too unintelligible. Last weekend I just happened to have a gig in Terneuzen, but that was actually for an older audience, that really came to hear the stories. I think the average age was around 55. When I play in Utrecht the audience is much younger.”
Broeder Dieleman © Mechteld Jansen
All that despite the fact that Zealand like the rest of the Netherlands outside the Randstad urban conglomeration have to contend with depopulation, an inferiority complex and regional pride as compensation. “Luckily it’s not so bad now, but a couple of years ago the trend was everything had to be Zeelandic. Suddenly all kinds of symbols were dredged up for Zealand. But the symbols they chose were all so feeble. Typical Zeeland girl’s names, bolus cakes, that sort of thing. That means nothing to me, of course.” And so Dieleman cannot stress enough that ‘Komma’ is not an ode to Zeelandic Flanders. “I don’t think that Zeelandic Flanders is all that special, per se. Regardless of where in the world you zoom in, stories always rise to the surface.
What he does think highly of is another Zeelandic archetype: that of the unconventional anarchist who takes matters into his own hands far from the Randstad. Such as Omèr Gielliet, a Roman Catholic priest and sculptor from Breskens who passed away in 2017 and was a kind of muse for Dieleman. ‘Komma’ is named after the shape of Gielliets’ signature. “That was someone who could be so anarchistic precisely because he was in Zeelandic Flanders. They wouldn’t put up at all with somebody like that in the city.”
Dieleman too likes being on the edge – here comes that waterfront again. “I don’t want to be swallowed up by the dialect scene, in the same way I don’t want to be swallowed up in the pop scene. I feel an affinity toward everyone making music in an honest way.” And so in 2015 he released a split single with the American musician Will Oldham, alias Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Oldham covered Dieleman’s song on one side and Dieleman Oldham’s on the other. “So a song in Zeelandic Flemish dialect was released in America. I think that’s really wonderful.”
The sound on ‘Komma’ is also more international and open than ever before. “That’s right, but it wasn’t a conscious choice. The sound has more to do with the way in which we were working. And you know, folk music has always been extremely international. If you check out the melody lines in the Dutch Song Database, you will find they occur all over the world. All folk music is connected, has been for centuries. That’s not new at all. We can now get that on internet and you can easily draw lines all over the world. But that influence has always been there, it all stems from the same foundation. After all, our own Bible comes from the Middle East.”
INDIE LOCAL DIALECT POP
Dieleman is part of a small, but extraordinary new generation of musicians who sing in their local dialect. A remarkable development, since over the past few decades singing in dialect had had a bad name. Whereas the Dutch mainstream media still only pay attention to such established bands as Normaal or Rowwen Hèze, the likes of such musicians as Meindert Talma, Harold K, Zea, Marlene Bakker and Joeps Kapel have quietly been rediscovering their own dialect or regional language in the underground scene, as an intimate, deeply personal way in which to express themselves.
An example of this is how Arnold de Boer, alias Zea, made a stripped down, intimate record in 2017 after the death of his mother, in Frisian – the second official language of the Netherlands. “The English language quickly turned out to be totally useless as a way to express myself,” says De Boer. “I automatically wrote lyrics in my mother tongue, Frisian. It was as if a door opened to a room in my house I didn’t even know existed. I could make music there, but different than I had done before; stripped down, more direct, more emotional and personal.” De Boer tours both as a soloist and with the band The Ex all over the world and always includes songs sung in Frisian. “I play with artists from all over the world who all sing in their own language and in which the words ‘region’ or ‘dialect’ are totally irrelevant. The variation in language is not a ‘punishment’ as Christianity teaches us, but an endless source of variation and so inspiration.”
Unlike Dieleman, De Boer is quite pleased with the attention paid by local media for music in the local vernacular: his music is regularly played at Omrop Fryslan (Frisian Broadcasting Company) and there are several festivals for Frisian music. Harold K. can’t complain either about the coverage he gets from L1, a radio and television broadcaster with a practically continuous stream of culture and music from the Dutch province of Limburg. But he says: “It is both a curse and a blessing, because it means you focus more attention to playing in the provinces.” While at the same time noticing that his audience is younger and more open outside of Limburg. Remarkably enough, after a number of albums in standard Dutch, he finds himself encouraged outside of Limburg to sing more in dialect. “That is also the difference with the previous generation of pop musicians who sang in dialect: we no longer have to fight for recognition, audiences everywhere just love it. But I also notice in myself a kind of urge to fight for diversity. To show: this is also the Netherlands, do not forget that.” And so his latest album ‘Mama Courage” is also an ode to the forgotten history of mining in Limburg.
Harold K. © Alex de Groot
HET ZESDE METAAL (THE SIXTH METAL)
Meanwhile, Dieleman has just finished the successor to ‘Komma’: in January 2019 he will be releasing an album he made together with Wannes Cappelle, a West Flanders singer and front man for the band Het Zesde Metaal, and cellist Frans Grapperhuis. The three of them will also tour Belgium and the Netherlands. “The two of us sat down at the table and wrote songs. And that went quite smoothly. I even think that Zeelandic Flemish and West Flemish might even officially be the same dialect. Whenever I perform there I always say: I speak the easternmost West Flemish there is. They always get a kick of that. The border runs along the district of Axel, at Zaamslagveer, actually. After that it becomes East Flemish.”