Dave Llewellyn was part of the scenery on the streets of Antwerp between 1988 and 2012. Before the Metro played recorded music if you walked through Diamant, Plantin or Groenplaats the chances are you threw a couple of Belgian Francs (or latterly Euros) into his guitar case. Dave not only knows so many of the stories and the people who inhabit the Diamond City but is interwoven into many of them, as Antwerp became home for him and the families he started on the banks of the Schelde. Here he writes about his experiences and memories of his time in Antwerp:
My love affair with Belgium started with a portion of stoofvlees in Ieper that made it impossible to get the boat back to the UK from France, as we all got really bad food poisoning. Recovering before my family did, I realised that I really liked Belgian people so instead of heading for Oostende, I turned east towards the Diamond City arriving on a Thursday in 1988 just in time to rent a tiny flat on the Kattenberg in Borgerhout, from the priest on the Laar. I remember it was a Thursday because when I went out to get my car the next morning it had been replaced by hundreds of market stalls. Welcome to Belgium!
I had been a busker in France and looked forward to trying out some of my music for Belgian people. The first and most obvious difference I noticed was in the approach to bureaucracy and paperwork: France have a very “laissez faire” attitude to life. However, Belgian authorities need a paper for EVERYTHING, and in every “gemeente”. So having been stopped about five times by police on my first morning I found myself in the Diamant Metro where there were no police; just a couple of friendly security guards. We could finally make a living in the cultural car crash the locals call Antwaarp and become part of the blood that travels daily up the main arteries of the The Carnotstraat and the Leien, which when I arrived, still had the “kinderkopkes” on road surfaces into the centre, and the old town.
When I first arrived “straatmuzikanten” were honoured as an art form and the quality was the best I have ever known; better than any other city I have ever played in. Each summer, the “terrasjes” would fill up with tourists and locals looking to be entertained whilst they relaxed in the sun with a “pintje” under the watchful gaze of Rubens who surveyed the square from his plinth in the centre of the Groenplaats. Every busker would have their local and I settled in what at the time was called The Centra in the corner under the shadow of the Cathedral. It was run by a Dutchman who served trays of drinks on skeelers and I never witnessed him drop a thing in all the years I was there. Summers came and went, and in the winter we would go to a little buskers’ pub on the Kaai called the Muziekdoos run by Etienne who seemed to have been plucked straight out of 1967. The bar was cosy; the tables were barrels and they all had candles on them for ambience. I remember one night when Stef Kamil Carlens in his pre Deus days had everyone dancing on the tables as he and another guy belted out a particularly bawdy Violent Femmes song. Those were the golden days.
Things changed drastically for street musicians in Antwerp and for the audiences on the terraces when new countries joined the EU. Unfortunately this caused some tension, and personally I do not think that audiences enjoyed the newly arrived musicians that much. The street music scene changed. Many of the real musicians left to go ply their craft in other cities. Others successfully formed bands: Deus, Zita Swoon, and Kiss My Jazz among others.
Me? I did something else…
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This picture shows a seat on The Groenplaats, informally known as “Buskers’ Bench”. Like me , you’ve probably walked past it many times without giving it a second thought. For Dave, it is strongly linked with his memories of musician and songwriter John Swift (“that was his bench”) who co-wrote the 1960s hit I Can’t Let Maggie Go. Behind the bench is a cafe/ bar called “De Kleine Post” -this was formerly Centra, mentioned above.