Belem & the Mekanics bring alive the sound of Decap

© Ivan Put

For the past fifteen years, avant-garde composer Walter Hus has been tinkering maniacally on his Decap organ – a fully automatic orchestra, as it were. Along with accordionist Didier Laloy, his musical opposite, he blends human and machine into one pumping and pounding musical heart.

Long before jukeboxes and DJs made people dance, before the Second World War ‘Saturday night fever’ was all about punch card music. The Decap family from Antwerp started building immense, fully automatic organs that functioned as an orchestra, with drums, accordions, and saxophones.

Over the last few years, Decap organs have started making a comeback – more even: the hippest names in Belgian electronic music have started writing compositions to be performed with the organ. In September, there was a concert at the Brigittines as part of Nuits Sonores Brussels in which you could listen to (and watch) Decap compositions by Belgian producers like Sagat, Hiele, Milan W., Elko Blijweert, and Köhn.

Walter Hus must be the biggest Decap fanatic. The pianist and composer writes soundtracks for theatre, dance, and film (including for The Pillow Book by Peter Greenaway), has composed operas and orchestral work, and has explored the borders of rock with bands like Maximalist and Simpletones. He became fascinated by Decap organs twenty years ago.

“I wrote the opera Bloetwollefduivel with Jan Decorte in 1994. The ensemble Bl!ndman performed the music live. But when the Rotterdam-based Ro Theater wanted to reprise the production a year later, the band was no longer available. That is when I discovered that the Decap company now makes computer-­operated organs. I convinced the Ro Theater to invest in a renewed design that could play the role of the saxophone quartet.”

Hus became great friends with the Decap company. “I worked on the transcription of sheet music for the brand-new instrument that they were building. I fell completely in love with the whole instrumentarium and saw far greater potential in it. Decap were very interested in my ideas, and they lent me the installation. Like a hermit, I still maniacally tinker at the machine in my studio in Schaarbeek. Thanks to an appearance in the documentary The Sound of Belgium, about Belgian electronic music, my name and Decap suddenly became much more famous in the dance world.”

Accordionist Didier Laloy, a famous name in world music and folk, immerses his warm and poetic sound in the mechanical precision of Walter’s organ.

“Along with cellist Kathy Adam, I formed the duo Belem five years ago, and we started looking for something new, distinct from chamber music,” Laloy says. “When our manager introduced us to Walter Hus and his organ, I was immediately reminded of my childhood. I remembered a visit to the Meli Park, where a gigantic organ played music without human manipulation. As soon as I heard the rich sound in Walter’s studio, I immediately realized: this was what I was looking for.”

Hus is also exploring new avenues, influenced by Belem. “I come from the world of beats and electronica, but thanks to Belem I discovered the melodic potential of the organ. Didier encouraged me to forget about the grooves and just to focus on melody.”

In their live performances, Hus, Laloy, and Adam create total, immersive shows. For the staging, they collaborate with Brussels-based director Éric De Staercke.

Laloy: “He turned it into a coherent whole, full of references to steampunk, the retro futuristic movement that celebrates the potential of early industrial processes and technology with boundless imagination. Do the musicians direct the machine or is the other way around? You will only find out if you come to the show. The shows are very intimate because we play to audiences of maximum 250 people. It is the best way to bring out the stereophonic effect.”

> Belem & The Mekanics. 21/11 > 25/11, 20.00, Theatre Marni, Elsene/Ixelles

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