Arno’s music was inextricably linked with his social engagement, as Jan Goossens, who together with Hadja Lahbib is assignement holder for Brussels2030, experienced first hand on many an occasion. The singer’s dream was one of a free and diverse Brussels, where life is good for everybody.
‘Arno was always happy to listen or have a chat with anyone that came his way.’
As we go through life, there are not that many friends we know will always be there for us at the other end of the telephone line. Over the past fifteen years, Arno has been that kind of friend to me. No matter where we were around the globe, he would call us a few times every month. Because it was important to him to know we were doing alright, and just to say we would be seeing ‘elkandre’ soon, ‘one another’ in local Ostend dialect. That said, he always answered the phone, even if it was just to say ‘Kgo je weir bell’n’. I’ll call you back. And he would. It felt as though we were family: unconditional, no musts, the kind of friendship that was impervious to all the painful anecdotalism of life. Intense, serious when called for, but equally cheerful and light-hearted by the same token.
With Arno no longer among us, my mind drifts back to the things I got to enjoy in his company, the balderdash and the bravura, and the rock ’n roll. But I am also immediately reminded of his wisdom and warmth, without much in the way of words. His heart went out to a lot of people, to Brussels and to the world at large, all the way down through the last talks we had.
Hadja Lahbib, in conversation with Arno:
Le plus beau
The first time I rang him up was sometime in early 2006, from the KVS (Royal Flemish Theatre) in Brussels. With the local council elections looming large and the star of Flemish far-right party Vlaams Blok in the ascent, the general climate was one of great unease and concern over Flanders’ political future. In various places, people like Tom Barman in Antwerp and Sioen in Ghent came up with the idea of organising a series of concerts just ahead of the elections in early October. The concerts were intended as safe havens, sanctuaries for the things we feared we might lose, involving artists and local residents of towns and cities where languages and cultures were seen to rub along together in the face of rising inequality.
‘I never heard Arno complain once after he’d been given his diagnosis. He focused on what still had to be done’
The ‘0110’ concert scheme see the light of day. I could not help but notice how serious Arno was about the whole thing. This was not about playing to the gallery for him. This was not about him being the host or being one of the performers, but as the guy who came up with the idea for and then became the driving force behind the Brussels edition.
Without much ado, he made big bold choices: we were going to seize Paleizenplein and we got the indefatigable Patrick Riguelle and his band on board. He did not want to do any solo gigs, just quirky and unprecedented duets. All artists that performed felt a sense of kinship with ‘le plus beau’ (tongue firmly in cheek, Arno would often refer to himself as ‘le plus beau’, the most handsome devil of them all). But equally with ‘our’ Brussels, which we were not going to allow to be ruined by racism and bigotry. The 0110 concerts drew large, mixed crowds, with Vlaams Blok taking a kicking at polling stations across Flanders. Coincidence or in part thanks to this display of a united front by the world of culture?
Brussels by the sea
In 2009, Arno made me part of his ‘package’ for Theater aan Zee (the annual Theatre by the Sea arts festival). He had been invited to curate the festival just in the year he turned 60. He wanted TAZ to be about Brussels, not about him. So it was important that music, theatre and dance intermingled and interlaced. In addition to world famous Brussels jazz legend Toots Thielemans, he also wanted to see Sam Touzani, Starlette Matata and Josse De Pauw grace the Ostend stages. The concept was ‘Stoemp’ (a Flemish-Brussels dialect word meaning hotpot/hotch-potch in reference to the culinary dish that mixes a lot of different vegetables, meat and potatoes, but also meaning a ‘punch’, as in a ‘punch to the stomach’) was the concept. We spent two weeks immersing ourselves in a Brussels cauldron of shows, performances, concerts and afterparties at the legendary Lafayette.
I gradually caught on to the fact that Arno was not just looking to infuse some of Brussels in the seaside. He was also looking to reconnect with some of the Ostend he had grown up with the Ostend of Tjens Couter, the Ostend where Marvin Gaye wrote ‘Sexual healing’. Even some of the ‘weireldse’ (worldly) Ostend he had only every heard stories about, from the days when the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx and Mistinguett spent time at ‘ ‘t zeitje’ (the sea). To his mind, Ostend arguably never got any more badass than it was back then. Which did not mean to say we did not need to keep trying at doing better.
Arno – who went on to become one of my closest mates – was a stoemp ‘in his own right’. Folk singer and artistic adventurer, ‘chanteur de charme’ but every bit ‘avant la lettre’; willy-nilly speaking four languages as he had always been too maladroit to express himself in just one language, whichever language that was. He was always happy to listen or have a chat with anyone that came his way, but he was always clear about the things that mattered to him. All by himself, he was a shared character, with whom many felt at home: young or old, with or without qualifications, woman or man, Fleming, Walloon or Brusseleir (Brussels resident). As long as it was not spotless or pure: ‘On est moche mais on s’amuse …’ (We may be ugly bastards but we’re having a whale of a time all the same)
Not a Dansaert Fleming
Would he engage in politics on occasion? Or was he always political? A little or too much so? The question is probably beside the question. Arno was not one to compartmentalise things. Obviously music was his great love, but this was inextricably associated with his social engagement. In one of final interviews he gave on the topic of Brussels at a time when he was already marked and fatigued by his illness, it was striking to see him return to form when the lady reporter asked him about Brussels. Arno underscored the fact that, apart from being a Belgian stoemp, Brussels is also the multi-lingual capital of Europe. He knew that the only place where he could create his music and spend his life was right there, in Brussels. Not as a Dansaert Fleming. But as a free artist who was always alive to the ugliness and inequality of the world around him.
In ‘Putain, putain’ (‘putain’ meaning ‘harlot, whore’ but also a widely used swear word in French), he sings about his ‘kleintje’ (small manhood) that ‘verre schiet’ (ejaculates far), but he is also heard referring to ‘Il y a des gens qui crèvent de faim’ (there are people who are starving to death). Arno was never one for the life of luxury. ‘Chic et pas cher’ (fashionable and affordable) was more than just a song to him. In the same way as Brussels was more than the city where he lived. It was the city he loved, as well as something of a utopian dream that needed to be defended.
Arno’s utopian dream
When he rang me on the day he had received his diagnosis to say ‘It’s a cancer’, he had already got his head around it: ‘If my number is up, then so be it. With the life I’ve had, I’ve had a good innings.’ Not once did I hear him complain. Not an ounce of self-pity. He focused on what still had to be done: first one record, then another one, play as many live gigs as he could manage, see family and friends.
The treatments did not always do much good, nor did Covid. But even though the cancer had taken its toll on him between the time of his last concert in Paris on 11 February 2020 and his very last show in Ostend on 25 February of this year, he stood or sat on that stage the way he always had – a free and happy man.
What we are left with is loads of fantastic music, and even a brand-new album which we have all yet to discover. There are the thousands of pictures taken by his bosom buddy Danny Willems, and the one of my daughter Uma sitting on Arno’s shoulders at the Archiduc. Memories of lots of crazy nights, but every bit of quiet evenings dining out at a restaurant without much needing to be said in the way of words. Just sitting down together in silence. And finally, there is Arno’s utopian dream, the stoemp that brings hope but needs our unrelenting commitment: the commitment to a free and diverse Brussels, where life is good for artists and all ranks of society.
Merci, Lonesome Zorro. Being allowed to call myself your chum has been a prodigious privilege. I had just still wanted to tell you how much I loved you, but we ran out of time towards the end. So here it goes…