Papy Blues

1 Dec

Just down the street from our place in Brussels is a spot where various street performers hang out. There’s the guy who has trained his black Labrador to wear fluorescent green Ray-Bans (the dog lies down on a blanket, his chin resting forlornly on a little red velvet footstool), the violin students who only ever play Por una Cabeza and then go away again (apparently they’ve worked out that all they need is one dramatic tango to impress the tourists with, and they’ll never go hungry anymore), the drama students whose performance involves a girl with Pippi Longstocking hair, her Pierrot the clown suitor, a park bench and a rubber sandwich (I’ve never stayed to see how this scenario pans out), various break dancers and a guy who plays the didgeridoo.

I guess the competition isn’t very strong, but in my eyes, the sash for coolest busker down the street from me should be awarded to the perpetually joyful gentleman who goes by the name of Papy Blues. Most weekends he’ll be there, wearing socks under his sandals, a straw fedora, a white bushy beard and a gigantic grin. Perched on his amplifier, well-loved guitar on his knee, he strums out the most impeccable jazz and blues covers with a voice as gravelly and playful as Louis Armstrong. It’s a little strange hearing the sounds of the American South jangling their way around the cobblestone streets and Neo-Renaissance architecture of the Bourse, but somehow it works. He scats and wails about ol’ Louisiana so convincingly that you can easily imagine him back home sipping mint juleps on the front porch with Louis and Fats Domino.

It turns out, of course, that even though he sounds like he was born and bred amongst oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, he’s actually Belgian. My other half had a chat to him one afternoon and learned that he worked all his life in landscaping, but always maintained his interest in blues and rock ‘n’ roll on the side. Whenever he had some extra cash he would buy a new guitar, and any time there was a blues musician visiting Brussels he would go to see them play. Blues musicians being quite accommodating souls, he usually managed to meet them afterwards and organise jam sessions. He has now retired from the landscaping business and lives by the seaside in Belgium, but music isn’t something he could retire from. After a lifetime of experience playing rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and a huge collection of guitars, he comes to Brussels practically every weekend to play.

I would have said he plays just for the fun of it, but that’s not exactly true. The dog in Ray-Bans is something people can smirk at and walk on by; likewise the tale involving Pippi Longstocking and the rubber sandwich never attracts too much attention, but when Papy Blues is out, people always stop to listen. As he plays, the audience grows steadily larger, because people want to stay for his entire performance, not just one song. It’s not only his husky voice, it’s the permanent smile on his face, the way that he’s obviously having such a great time. As he plays there’s a ping-pong procession of people walking up to pop a few pennies into the ice-cream container by his feet.

So, he does collect a few Euros every weekend for his troubles. And so he should. He’s really the most talented busker I’ve ever come across, and most definitely the one who looks like he’s having the most fun doing it. Knowing a little more about his back-story makes him kind of inspirational, too. He managed to maintain and develop his music throughout his entire unrelated professional career, and after his retirement, it’s still going strong. He’s happy as a clam clanging out his rock ‘n’ roll in central Brussels, waggling his white eyebrows at the kids who must think he’s some sort of dressed-down Santa Claus indulging in a side interest they never knew about.

At the moment I only know how to play one song on the ukulele, but maybe if I get a little better one day I’ll go up to him and ask him to jam. In the meantime, here’s to you, Papy Blues! Apart from the oversized architectural constructions, buried rivers and parsley streets, you’re one of my favourite Brussels landmarks.

The Great Papy Blues (photo courtesy of Rima Igoseva)

As ever, the good folks of the internets have uploaded footage of Papy onto Youtube. Head on over.


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