Music & the image of local languages
Gronings without shame
Groningen indie rock band’s bass guitar and drums reverberate through Concerto, a record shop in the middle of Amsterdam. No, they didn’t get lost, the band members explain when their set is done. The two-person band consisting of UG communications officer Merel Weijer and her partner Michel Weber presented its debut EP in the country’s capital on May 19.
Hister’s music is best described as indie rock. All songs are sung in the Groningen dialect. The first song, Komt Goud, is reminiscent of the bass line and drums in K’s Choice’s Not An Addict. ‘Singer-songwriters like Marlene Bakker and Americana already do stuff in Gronings’, says Weijer. ‘We wanted to do something completely different. We’re like a combination of True Widow and The Cure. Slow and melodious rock music.’
It’s clearly paying off: Hister, which means ‘nervous’ or ‘excited’ in Gronings, has played live at Radio Noord and performed in Simplon to present their EP in Groningen. On May 20, they won first place in the Grunneger Laidjesfestival.
They’d love to perform in the rest of the country. They got to go to Amsterdam because their record label has its offices there. Michel managed to get the gig through his contact in the music world. ‘I work at Plato, the record shop’, he says. ‘Concerto is part of the same chain, so it was very easy to arrange a date that was close to our EP release.’
It was a big step to start singing in Gronings
Anneke Zwart is one of the people in the Amsterdam audience. She’s originally from Warffum but has been living in the capital for years. But the Gronings dialect is still in her blood, she says. ‘I’m part of a group of people who all talk in Grunnegs. And I attend the Grunneger dainst, a Groningen church service here, every year.’
Today, she came to Concerto to pick up Paul Simon’s new album. Zwart initially planned to go earlier in the afternoon, but when she saw that the Groningen band was performing at five, she decided to kill two birds with one stone. ‘I like all kinds of music, so I enjoyed this.’
Hister was started when Weijer picked up her son’s bass guitar one day. The instrument had been gathering dust in a corner, so she decided to start playing it. While her boyfriend had been playing for various bands in Groningen for years, this was her first foray into music. They formed their two-person band eighteen months ago.
Weijer knows the combination of drums and a bass guitar isn’t very obvious. ‘But that’s kind of what makes us so special.’ Normally, the bass provides the rhythm in addition to the drums. ‘But I play a melody’, she says. ‘I’m a guitar player playing a bass.’ Weijer writes most of the music herself. ‘I just sit down with my bass and come up with melodies and runs. After that, I start thinking about the lyrics. It’s mostly free association. I tend to look for a certain atmosphere, like in the song Onder wotter.’ This song is about someone who’s unable to escape.
At home, the pair speak Gronings to each other. ‘But it was still a big step to start singing in dialect’, says Weijer. ‘I was a little worried about coming across as too course.’
It’s difficult to get young people to speak Gronings
Recording their first EP in the studio kind of happened by accident. ‘My boyfriend was supposed to record with a different band’, says Weijer. The session was cancelled, but the studio time had already been booked. ‘He turned to me and joked that we should go in and record.’
They’d been making music together for six months at the time and had four songs written. ‘I figured, why not? Let’s just give it a go. It all worked out pretty well. We even added a fifth song while we were in the studio.’
Now that the EP has been released, they’re very busy. In addition to rehearsing twice a week, emailing music magazines for reviews, and talking to venues, they also do all the logos, pictures, and other promotional material for the band. It’s almost a real job. ‘It’s not like we want to become famous or anything’, says Weijer. ‘But I always feel like anything worth doing is worth doing right.’
When UG linguist Aurélie Joubert and research assistant Merel Lobo with the Centre for Groningen Language and Culture asked to do audience research during their gigs, Weijer immediately said yes. ‘I regularly interview scientists for my work at the university’s communications department’, she says. ‘I think that’s how they found us.’
Joubert and Lobo want to know whether music in Gronings makes people more likely to also speak in Gronings? Local languages like Gronings are slowly dying out. ‘Before, local dialects would be passed down from parent to child’, says Lobo. ‘But these days, there’s a kind of stigma that comes with dialects; some people think anyone who speaks Gronings is dumb. That’s why it’s no longer being passed down. That also makes it difficult to get young people to speak Gronings.’
Surprisingly enough, the amount of music in Grunnegs has been increasing, Lobo knows. Artists such as TikTok Tammo, Marlene Bakker, the Wat Aans rappers, and cover band Vandestraat have been gaining in popularity. Initially, a subsidy for local music would have played a large role in this popularity, Lobo says. ‘But when these subsidies ended several years ago, the musicians stayed popular. It was kind of like a snowball effect.’
However, the question remains whether this increase in Groningen music means people will start speaking the dialect more often, thus adding to the number of people who can speak it.
Joubert’s earlier research focused on Occitan, a minority language spoken in the south of France and the north of Spain. Last year, she attended a concert by Groningen group Vandestraat, a band formed by former local language consultant Olaf Vos, which is active in promoting the Groningen dialect. ‘I loved that gig, because you could see people repeating the words in Gronings. The atmosphere was really great.’ Expanding her research to include the use of Gronings was an obvious decision.
Even a single enjoyable gig can push people to engage more with the local language
Joubert started by approaching various Groningen musicians and bands to disseminate questionnaires. In addition to Hister, Vandestraat, cult band Stad, and participants in a Gronings song competition in Haren also agreed to participate. ‘I asked the audiences questions such as: how often do you speak Gronings, do you like the dialect, what do you associate with the dialect? We noticed that the questionnaires made the audience talk to each other about Gronings as well’, says Lobos, who analysed the answers.
The best indication of whether people will want to do more with the dialect is whether they enjoyed the concert, she says. ‘Even a single enjoyable gig in Gronings can push them to engage more with the local language.’
People in the audience of a concert in Gronings are also more themselves, Joubert saw. ‘They don’t feel any of the shame associated with speaking a dialect, which is something they do feel when they’re surrounded by Dutch speakers. These gigs can be really freeing for them.’
Vandestraat even noticed a change in their audience when they started singing in Gronings, they told Lobo. ‘They used to have a lot of younger fans, but their audience has matured a lot.’
Joubert would love to expand the study. ‘I’d like to interview more audiences, study music in other regional languages. I’ll be doing that at Zwarte Cross. I’m not sure yet what the bands want to know about their audience, so I’ll be coming back to them, too.’
The ultimate goal: a large, overarching European study into regional-language music and other cultural events. ‘Something like that doesn’t exist yet’, says Joubert. ‘But I’ve realised how important these kinds of events are for the community spirit.’
Weijer can’t wait to see the results of the study. During their EP presentation in Simplon, they definitely tried to engender that community spirit. ‘We wanted to have it be a real Groningen party’, she says. ‘Herman Sandman the columnist and Fieke Gosselaar the poet, both born and raised in Groningen, were our guests and recited their work. Everyone loved it.’