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Belgian 'Maestro' Stromae cracks Anglo music market

AFP Stromae performing at the French Victoires de la Musique awards earlier this month

Can a half-Rwandan, half-Belgian French-speaking music sensation break through on an international, English-dominated music scene? Stromae took his charm offensive to London this week. FRANCE 24 was there.


Attempting to break through to any English-speaking market is no easy task for a Francophone artist, yet there is something about Stromae, Belgium’s latest coolest export, that makes it more likely.

While his second studio album, “Racine Carré”, has been a chart-topper across much of Western Europe, the half- Belgian, half-Rwandan singer-songwriter still remains relatively unknown in the UK and the US.

His debut single, “Alors On Danse”, nonetheless managed to peak at number 25 across the Channel – a rare feat for any foreign-language track in the UK – giving the 28-year-old some exposure in the summer of 2010.

With 80 tour dates spanning from Berlin to Brussels, could Stromae’s (an anagram for ‘Maestro’) London gig be the springboard to greater things?

Charisma and charm

Playing at the Koko in London’s Camden last Thursday, on February 20, Stromae handily proved that wherever he performs, language is no barrier. What matters is the music, and how you deliver it.

Tickets to Stromae’s second London show sold out quickly, with venues holding over 1400, while a few desperate fans resorted to vainly seeking to buy unwanted extra tickets from the rapidly forming queue. The vast majority of attendants were French-speaking, but a sizeable number of English speakers made their presence known, leading the Belgian star to offer multi-lingual speeches between sets.

Stromae began the show with an animated short of his younger-self on an apparent journey before emerging from a lit doorway to perform “Ta fête”, alongside three backing musicians. His dress – a chequered turquoise cardigan, shorts and high-top socks – was no surprise to his fan base, nor his unorthodox dancing, which mainly consists of monster-like gestures and sporadic jumps. On anyone else, it might raise a few eyebrows; on Stromae, it’s part of his charisma and charm.

The stage is quite simple: a background screen is occasionally used for video imagery, Stromae’s three backing musicians are present, as well as two lit square root symbols, which reference the name of his latest album. But what material Stromae may lack on stage is made up for by his electrifying performances.

Despite the often sad and depressing subjects explored in his music, Stromae manages to keep the crowd moving. He appears genuinely moved as he sings his hit-single “Formidable”, wandering around the stage like the troubled drunkard depicted in the song’s video. Towards the end, he looks up at a single light, eyes moist, in a shockingly genuine performance.

Even darker is the singer’s track “Quand C’est?” , about an imagined cancer striking his mother, and the vulnerability of children. A dark virus cell slithers across the background screen, and the audience falls silent.

‘Belgian fries’

Stromae pauses to give the crowd a cultural lesson, in the true meaning of his track “Moules Frites”.

“The truth is they are not French fries... they’re Belgian fries!” he jokes, encouraging the Belgian fans waving their flags along the front of the stage.

Moving onto his latest single "Tous les mêmes", Stromae sits and begins applying make-up in order to convey the split between the male and female elements on stage – much like the song’s music video – while pink lights lit up when he starts singing the female parts, and green for the male.

The crowd goes particularly crazy when he performs “Alors On Danse” and “Papaoutai”, his most distinctive, and career-setting, singles to date.

Dancing alone on stage, singing with little fault, Stromae stood by his name’s meaning: the Belgian Maestro is a crowd pleaser. His distinct lack of pretension makes you feel he is ‘one of us’, his modesty leaves you wanting to like him. He even took the time to thank practically every member of his production team on an individual basis.

To conclude, the Belgian star performed his non-vocal track “Merci” -- a fitting closure. Supported by background visuals, the track reminded us that Stromae, beyond being simply a singer/performer, is, above all, a musician.

As the track closes, Stromae gives one last “Merci” before pulling an invisible cord, leaving the stage in darkness and fans cheering for more.

Stromae’s next tour dates see him return to France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium before two big dates in Montreal and New York in June, which may well define the rest of his career.


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