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We head behind the scenes at Couleur Cafe music festival
For the small team behind Brussels’ Couleur Café music festival, getting the show on the road is a real labour of love. Four of the team tell The Bulletin about what goes into turning their vision into reality every summer.
‘A surprise every year’
Irene Rossi has been with Couleur Café since its inception in 1990. “It was a new festival in Brussels, with new exciting African music,” she recalls. “In those days it was the boom of world music, it was the new thing in pop. David Byrne and Peter Gabriel and all these big stars were mixing music from African countries, from South America, it was a really exciting time. Now we’re more like an urban world festival – with African artists, but there’s also a lot of hip-hop, reggae, dub, funk and soul, and Balkan music.”
Rossi is head of communication for the festival – which runs from 28-30 June – but her job doesn’t stop there. “Because we’re a small non-profit, everyone has different things to do,” One such task is booking the bands. “You follow which bands are on tour, you watch out for the bands you want to book, then you get in contact with the agents representing them in Europe and make an offer. Then you negotiate on price and exclusivity, because Belgium has many other festivals in the same season.”
Couleur Café’s trademark is the fringe activities that take place in the festival grounds alongside the main concerts, ranging from DJ sets to a yoga tent with sound therapy and cocktail bars. Food is also important, with a street showcasing 40 types of cuisine. “It’s become one of the focal points of the festival,” Rossi says. “When you walk through the festival you have this mini city-trip around the world.”
There are challenges inherent with putting on a festival as big as Couleur Café, especially in a public park; last year the festival moved from Tour & Taxis to the Atomium. “It’s protected, so we have to be very careful what we do. This year the big challenge is the Tour de France, which will start a week after Couleur Café. Every year there is another surprise!”
‘We’re a family’
Marie-Sophie le Maire works in artistic production. “When a band is confirmed and the deal is closed, I take over, dealing with hotels, the contracts, artist tax, sending them the schedules... From May we are dealing with the tour manager. I’ll be asking for their technical and hospitality riders,” she explains.
So do performers really request bowls of blue M+Ms or a flock of white doves? “Not so much, actually! People have these ideas about the rider, but I never get requests like that. It’s quite normal: what they want to eat, what they want to drink, a certain brand of whisky… Sometimes it’s really detailed, and sometimes it’s like ‘a few beers is fine’,” she says.
Dressing rooms also have to be sorted out, with the festival schedule finally falling into place when all the bands have been booked. “I like the last month because I’m talking to the tour manager, it’s more practical and that’s really exciting, I love it,” le Maire says. “During the festival, sometimes we have emergencies to deal with, for example a band who have missed a plane, then we have to move the whole schedule. If they are able to come on another plane, we’ll put them a bit later and switch with another.
“This is the best festival in Belgium. From outside you might think that it’s a really big machine but we work like a family. I love it. It’s so great, you can be involved in so many stages of the festival.”
‘There’s so much to see’
Wouter Denayer works with volunteers and animations – artistic groups that perform in the grounds of the festival. “It’s all the little things that make people go ‘wow’ and create atmosphere. Last year we had an Antillean brass band; this year a Moroccan Gnawa band are playing. We have also invited the [giant puppet theatre] Paris Benares,” he says. “There’s so much to see in every corner… it’s hard not to be impressed.”
The festival relies heavily on volunteers, with 1,400 people offering their services for free during the event. In return, they get a meal, a T-shirt and a chance to experience the festival. “We also have more than 300 young people from the Scouts, and they really do a marvellous job. Without their help we wouldn’t be able to do it in fact,” Denayer says.
What are the qualities needed to organise a major festival like this? “You should be able to cope with stress, be patient, and be able to try to foresee all possible problems, because the real key is to prevent the problems from happening before they do.”
‘It’s a really good mix’
Dennis Corbesier works in communications. “I’m like Irene’s right-hand man: I do everything to do with social media, newsletters, press releases and communications and sponsoring. We try to integrate every sponsor into the park, and give the appropriate look and feel on the festival grounds,” he says. Previous examples of this non-intrusive advertising include hammocks with sponsors’ logos and a giant deckchair for festival-goers to sit in.
What’s his favourite bit of organising such a festival? “Definitely the three days of the festival itself. We work really hard, like fifteen-hour days, but it’s so gratifying when you walk in the festival grounds for the first time, and you see all these people dancing and laughing and having fun. It gives you a really great feeling.”
And lastly – from one in the know – if we’ve never been before, why should we visit Couleur Café this year? “It’s our 30th anniversary, and the park is going to look beautiful. There’s a really good line-up, with young Cuban bands and great American hip-hop names and Belgian local talent. It’s a really good mix – there are lots of reasons to come!”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019. Photos: Leen Van Laethem