Artistic director and programmer Wim Wabbes (64) presents a particularly rich program at Ha Concerts for his final season, in which many artists who touched him deeply come to bid him farewell. At the end of 2024, he turns the page after 37 years of music planning and organizing. A conversation about his fascinating career.
An interview by Karel Van Keymeulen
Wim himself is surprised that it will be 37 years. "A Slavic philologist, I started at the Vooruit in 1987 as a music programmer. At that time there were no training programs for such a job.
At work I didn't have my own sound system, so I listened to records and cassettes at home. CDs were just emerging. Rik Vandecaveye paved the way for music at the Vooruit. I learned the trade by doing.
At work I didn't have an installation of my own, so I listened to records and cassettes at home. I learned the trade by doing.
What was a first highlight for you in that?
'In 1988, I was at the Groningen Jazz Marathon for a program around New York's downtown scene, with John Zorn as the pivotal figure. It was one of the leading scenes in jazz and free music, with the high-profile club The Knitting Factory as its hub.
I went there in 1989 with the plan to create something together. That was an important moment in my career. We presented the Brand New York Festival at Vooruit, and that collaboration gave instant charisma.'
I also remember from that period the Vooruit Sound festival as one of your creations?
'For ten years we organized that festival, from an eclectic idea with contemporary music, improvisation, jazz and avant-garde rock.
Luc Ferrari, French composer and one of the figureheads of the electronic music scene, once attended an entire edition. 'One of the best festivals I've ever experienced,' he told me. That compliment was enough for me.'
Many other festivals followed over the years, what was the common thread in them?
'We liked to emphasize regions and cities; from China and Russia to Montreal. So there was also Etoiles Polaires with a first edition on the High North in 2004. Or an exploration of the Arctic zone in 2004, featuring Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who later became famous and died too soon. An edition with the later famous and prematurely deceased Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson as curator. From that series of festivals grew the Istanbul Ekspres festival in 2007.'
When did you make the move to Trade Fair, today Ha Concerts?
'In 2013. A year later, I became artistic director there. At the time, the North Star Fund, on which the Handelbeurs relied, had taken a hit during the financial crisis. We were getting very few subsidies at the time.
We chose to develop into a music house with residencies, commissions and following artistic careers. Today it is a fantastic house, with an excellent team and acoustically one of the best halls.'
In your transition, was The Yellow Hall an important legacy? As a predecessor of Ha Concerts, you saw a tradition there with jazz, classical, world music and visual arts.
'Decidedly. The Yellow Hall was one of the reference venues in the city. It hosted incredibly good bands; I saw the World Saxophone Quartet and Cheihka Rimmiti, among others. It provided a starting point for our new story.'
What did you find most fascinating about developing that trajectory?
'Setting a policy. Searching for what identity we give to the home and where we can make a difference. Finding that place. As artistic director, you are a facilitator; you are at the service of the music and the audience.
Of course, you also remain a music programmer, which represents a life filled with prospecting. What has been the impact of that with you - even privately?
'Today it is not easy to make good choices, because there is a plethora of music available. I have always opted to feature only bands that I have seen live. That's why I visit a lot of festivals. By using that criterion, I build in a limitation of choice.
Of course, that is also burdensome. I have a family and occasionally I had a hard time leaving. Also with the Ha, I attend the concerts as much as possible and so am often away from home. So my partner has not always had it easy and I am very grateful to her for that.'
I have always opted to post only bands that I have seen live. That's why I visit a lot of festivals. By using that criterion, I build in a limitation of choice.
You traveled all over Europe, choosing smaller festivals over, say, Montreux or Vienne. All those players seem to cluster together in the Europe Jazz Network, which you've chaired since 2020. So you have a unique perspective on how European jazz festivals are doing.
'Yes, it's going well. There are festivals I still go to, like Saalfelden. Some others perished because of corona or a changing political landscape. You see that governments are not always inclined to invest in certain genres of music. But the 200-member network is growing, which is accompanied by a fierce rejuvenation and many more female voices at the table.
More than before, we're talking about how to put together compelling programs and what audience we can reach for this. We are looking for how to give an artist a good audience and vice versa. But also about how music stands in society, and what that interaction means.'
That conversation will continue in 2024, when Ha Concerts hosts the annual conference of Europe Jazz Network?
'Yes indeed. It always takes place in a different European center city and this time it is Ghent. Not insignificantly, because on a European scale it is the largest event for jazz with more than 400 participants from 34 European countries.
There are sessions on themes such as youth and jazz, in addition to numerous short performances. An exquisite selection of our many Belgian bands may present themselves.'
Belgian jazz under the spotlight. How do you see that scene continuing to evolve?
'That music scene is always getting richer, with plenty of good musicians looking for a stage. Small pubs and clubs play an important role in this, but presenting a record in a good concert hall is a crucial step for musicians. That's why we try to present up to two jazz concerts a week.'
Will that flow be maintained even after you leave Ha Concerts?
'Decidedly. That's the intention. We almost doubled our grant last year, which means our vision is being followed. We need those funds to stay afloat.'
When a jazz band like The Bad Plus plays the same repertoire for kids half an hour before the concert, it works. Kids go along with that.
This includes music for very young children?
'Ha Concerts is developing as an intergenerational house. We decided to present our music to children and young people as well. That caught on. When a jazz band like The Bad Plus plays the same repertoire for children half an hour before the concert, it works. Children go along with that.
I only see growth potential. Demand is growing, supply will have to follow. We like to respond to that creatively.'
Finally Wim, what will the future bring?
'I can think about it for another year, but already know I'm going to turn over page. I don't see my retirement as an extension of my job. I want to contribute in other ways to society, which will pay for my retirement.
I have gained a lot of experience and possibly other organizations can use it. In any case, it has been an unimaginable privilege to be able to do this job.'
I'm going to turn a page and want to engage with society in other ways. In any case, it has been an unimaginable privilege to be able to do this job.