In 2018 I had the pleasure of reviewing
Wouter en de Draak‘s
self-titled debut album. In that review, I complimented
Wouter en de Draak
on their instrumental balfolk CD, and called it a wonderful mix of Breton folk music with a touch of Argentinian tango-like vibes. I called it a slightly melancholic album, in a positive way though.
-‘I cannot point out a single best song. This CD itself is the highlight. It is an album of consistent high quality. And it was a pleasure, a real pleasure to listen to. Although I used the word ‘melancholic’ a lot it’s not a sad CD. On the contrary. Yes, it makes me nostalgic, but in a good way. Remembering summers filled with fun and laughter. In an odd way, it makes me feel at home. It feels like a warm musical bath in which I can unwind and relax. This is not a ‘simple’ CD filled with balfolk tunes. This is a listening experience that will give you many enjoyable moments. Well done!’
Listening to the debut album three years later, I still stand by every word I wrote then.
Well, three years on, and the follow-up album, Zonnewachter, is turning its rounds in my CD player. To be honest, it has been doing so since May, so I have to start this review with an apology.
Yes, I wanted to write about Zonnewachter a lot sooner but somehow life got in the way, so it’s only now that I have found the time to do so. ‘Better late than never’ as the saying goes. And trust me, this album is definitely worth the wait! I still love Wouter en de Draak’s debut album, but I consider Zonnewachter to be even better. Or should I say different? Yes, I think that is the better phrasing. Joris Alblas (acoustic guitar) and Wouter Kuyper (diatonic accordion, bagpipes), who together form Wouter en de Draak, have once again invited their friends Isaac Muller (Irish flute, tin whistle, bombarde), Frank van Vliet (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Roland Uijtdewilligen (percussion) to join in, and just as on the debut album they play a big role in the overall sound of Zonnewachter. But it hasn’t turned out as a ‘Wouter en de Draak‘ part 2. No, two new sounds were introduced on this album: the hurdy-gurdy (played by Harald Bauweraerts) and the bagpipes (played by Wouter Kuyper himself). And with the addition of these two instruments the sound shifts away from Brittany into …, ahm…., well…., ahm… I can’t really define it to a specific region anymore, to be honest, but trust me, it’s beautiful.
The opening track, Fireflies and Mosquitoes, still has that lovely French feel to it. That feel of a vibrant early summer evening; somewhere warm; with good friends around; a lot of wine flowing; and an occasional whack of the hand to get rid of those pesky buzzing garden friends that no one likes but always seem to be there.
At the start of the second song Legopolska, Wouter and Joris again take you to Brittany. Wouter Kuyper’s accordion sound is so quintessentially French to my ears. So full of emotion. It melts me away every time I hear it. But the Irish flute and tin whistle sound coming in during the later part of the song pull the melody away from the west of France, towards the green fields of Éire, their notes seem to float over the dark waters of the Irish loughs. Especially that tin whistle, light as a feather, faint as a fairy, dancing lovely above the music, truly magical. As I said before, at this point it doesn’t sound Breton anymore, but I also can’t call it Irish/Scottish folk. It’s a beautiful blend between the two.
Scottish Périphérique is a second example of that stylistic blend, (it’s even blending together in the name of the song itself), but this time we travel to the Scottish Highlands, we overlook the vast lochs of the Scottish coast, the sound of the bagpipes drifting away on the wind towards Ben Nevis. I really like this blending of the two styles. Both Legopolska and Scottish Périphérique mix a warming melancholic feel with a cheerfully upbeat smile. It gives the songs a real sense of depth, an extremely pleasurable listening experience. The best moment is halfway through Scottish Périphérique, where you will find a beautiful duet between Wouter on bagpipes and Harald on hurdy-gurdy. When you read this I can imagine you’ll think this will sound really loud (and rightfully so, both instruments can be really in your face), but no, surprisingly, it is not. Both soloists play their instruments with such delicacy that it reminds me a lot of the beautiful blending solos on
Eufori album, sometimes in harmony with each other, sometimes challenging each other, chasing each other’s notes, making Scottish Périphérique my first highlight on this CD!
It is instantly followed by highlight number two: the song Mazurmeau (a mazurka). It starts with the open sound of Joris’ DADGAD guitar, the delicate touch of Wouter Kuyper’s accordion making it into a touching ballad. The Irish whistle solo of Isaac Muller just adds to the tender feel of the song. But when Frank van Vliet adds his muffled trumpet, I really get swept off my feet. So delicate! So touching! The duet that follows between trumpet and flute is truly breathtaking. Just as with the debut album, the guest musicians are not there to fill up the sound. NOOO, they are such an important part of this stunning CD. All of them are capable of putting so much emotion and feeling into their instruments that I constantly forget this is an instrumental album. Or maybe it just isn’t. Maybe it ÍS a CD filled with voices. It just happens to be instruments instead of vocals communicating the emotions, that’s all.
The guitar intro of Costa Gwad takes me back to Monsieur 7, my favorite song of the first album. But before I sink into a pleasurable melancholic mood, the upbeat, jazzlike rhythm gets me on the edge of my seat again. That’s the story of Zonnewachter actually: where the debut album was a clear trip down Brittany, this album is an accumulation of different Western European styles. Lovely to dance to, and a joy to explore on your couch with a set of headphones. Just listen to the skills of the musicians, and the way their sound blends together. All of them so talented, none of them showing off, all of them playing in service of the song.
This is what makes Zonnewachter such a pleasurable album to listen to. The song is always in the foreground. Be it in a ballad, like in the song Turning 84 which is a beautiful blend between Breton folk and an Argentinian tango feel; a bourrée like Dusgemint where Wouter en de Draak mix up Celtic folk with medieval a medieval feel, (Especially in the way Wouter uses his bagpipes. I mistakenly took it for a bombarde at first); or the song Gavotte Caresse which strongly reminds me of the instrumental ballads of the German band
while Berggavotte has that cool medieval vibe happening again.
Speaking of the bands musical skills, I seriously thought I heard a set of Uilleann pipes the first time I listened to Gavotte Caresse. Wouter has such a delicate touch that I still cannot believe it’s actually bagpipes I hear. I never thought I would say it, but the duet between the trumpet and the bagpipes sounds so light. It truly is as if the instruments are stroking your ears. Stunning, truly stunning.
I could name all twelve songs on Zonnewachter, I truly could. Zonnewachter is a wonderful album to listen to. It is also a true balfolk album, filled with waltzes, two gavottes, a jig, a polka and a kost ar c’hoad (a circle dance traditional to Brittany from the same family as the gavotte), a polska, a scottish, and a mazurka.
With Zonnewachter Wouter and Joris have made an album that is still clearly connected to the music of Brittany, but the duo has incorporated so many other elements that it is hard for me to define it as one certain style. The big question is: ‘Do I need to?’ The answer is: ‘No, I do not!’ Good music has no boundaries. It is universal, just like dance is. It is a language we ALL share. Zonnewachter can be defined as Western European balfolk with an Argentine touch.
It can also be defined as a highly entertaining instrumental folk album. If you don’t have it yet, make sure you put it on your wishlist.
As for me, I hope Wouter en de Draak are already planning their third album, because I can’t wait to see where their music will lead them next!
album Cover: Tineke Lemmens
pictures: Wouter en de Draak
Wouter en de Draak – Wouter en de Draak (2018) review
Cliff de Booy
it is kind of costumary that we start a review with an nice intro. Something funny or of interest. I could, for example, ponder a bit over why the band is called
Wouter en de Draak
(dragon). Is it a nice play on words on the story of George and the dragon? (In Dutch the story is actually called Joris en de draak, and the bandmembers are called Wouter and -indeed- Joris ). Or did Joris do something odd to get this nickname? A million ideas come up.
I could also mention some of the song titles. Now I know that folk people have this tradition to give their instrumental songs odd names, but Dieseldrone, Tosti, or Vliegende Graafmachine (Flying excavator)?? Those surely are amongst the strangest I’ve seen in a long time.
Another option is to make a more serious remark, for instance how fitting it is that I write this review right after
Hush The Wolves.Hush The Wolf being the CD you would play at the height of a party, when everyone is swirling and dancing, and how Wouter en de Draak -the album- is the perfect follow-up. The music that you would play when the night is coming to its end, but nobody wants to leave. The moment you pop open the first bottle of wine, as a friend starts some deep conversation that you know will take you deep into the morning. I could write about all that. But forget about it! This time I’m skipping the intro! There is so much I want to tell about this album, that I’m just gonna leave the whole intro thing be and get right to the music.
Wouter en de Draak are Wouter Kuyper (diatonic accordion, recorder, on the right) and his dragon companion Joris Alblas (acoustic guitar, left side). They invited Isaac Muller (Irish flute, second from right), Frank van Vliet (Flugelhorn, trumpet) and Roeland Uijtdewilligen (percussion, second from left) to join them as guest soloists on some songs. Together they made quite an interesting instrumental balfolk CD, that includes 3 waltzes, 2 Scottish , a hanter dro (a dance from Bretagne), a cercle, 2 mazurkas, a jig, a bourree and a gavotte. In their bio Wouter and Joris describe their music as: [quote] ‘Balfolk with a bigger roll for the guitar, a touch of Irish folk and a big love for the music from Bretagne.’ Well I can safely say this is true. As I was watching them play on this years
I was instantly transported to France, even as hailstorms that were constantly coming over and dropping their loads. The rain and the cold didn’t stop the Balfolkers to dance upon W.e.d.D.’s tunes. That in itself says enough. On CD the music gets an extra dimension, a deeper layer, you can hear the care and the intensity they put into the recording. It are not ‘just’ balfolk tunes they play, no it are instrumental chansons. That is what makes Wouter en de Draak -the album- so good. But i’m getting way ahead of myself again.
As I was listening to the first notes of Vliegende Graafmachine, it just happened, that I was sitting in the metro with the morning sun on my face and a clear blue sky above me. Now I don’t know if it was the warmth of the sun or the melancholic sound of Wouter’s accordion, but the music took me right back to a summer camp about 30 years ago, when we were backpacking in an area just south of Paris. Back to a night we slept under the open sky, just as clear as today, somewhere alongside the Seine. Some of us were brave enough to sleep on the grass, some of us under a bridge -just in case it would rain- but all of us too lazy to pitch our tents.
I don’t know if it’s the lovely acoustic guitar intro, the slightly melancholic sound of the accordion or the laidback feel of the song, but I can’t help drifting off to that wonderful time we had in La France. But in any case, Vliegende Graafmachine (flying excavator !?) is a lovely introduction to Wouter en de Draak’s first album.
Hanterko (a hanter dro from Bretagne) has a French feel to it as well, this time with clear Celtic influences. Especially when Irish flute player and guest musician Isaac Muller shares the lead melody with Wouter Kuyper. But it’s not a clearcut whizzing and swirling Irish folk song. Again the musicians take a more laidback approach. Wouter en de Draak build their songs up slowly, taking their time to let the melody flow. They really understand the power of a small pause, a moment of silence within the music. All of this makes Hanterko a beautiful ballad.
The next song, the cheerful slightly jumpy Scottish Werkelijk Waar?! (Really?!) keeps me in a reminiscent mood and takes me back to another childhood memory. When I was a kid, a barrel organ pulled by horse, would come through our street on its way to the market. I would always rush to the window to listen to it. The way Wouter plays his accordion at the start of Werkelijk Waar ?! takes me back to the sound of that barrel organ, and when the percussion starts to sound like horse hooves the memory is complete. The cool flute solo from Wouter suddenly gives my memories a weird twist. As if Peter Pan himself is flying through my memories. At a certain point Werkelijk Waar !? becomes a wee bit jazzy and that’s the point where I really drift off towards a good place. Werkelijk waar!
I keep being in this chill state of mind during Davy’s Waltz.Yes it’s a waltz, but more than that it is a beautiful piece of calm acoustic guitar music accompanied by accordion. A singer-songwriter type song but without a singer. The music of Wouter en de Draak doesn’t need a voice anyway. The part of the voice is shared by all the instruments. Sometimes it’s the delicate touch of the guitar, sometimes it’s a beautiful solo from the accordion and sometimes it’s one of the guest soloist that tell the tale. It’s this variety that makes this album such a pleasure to listen to. The diversity, not only in instruments, but also in dances, in tempo, in the way the music is arranged. From small and subtle to grand and powerful. Those contrasts are what makes this CD so interesting to listen to.
The fifth song, New Horizon, New Adventures is a Cercle that gives us that positive, cheerful French/Irish connection again. It’s the interplay between the accordion and the Irish flute that catches my ear in the beginning, but the best part of the song starts halfway through when, one after another, all the soloists get their moment to shine. A lovely song that keeps growing on you the more you hear it.
The mazurka Zon Op De Glijbaan (Sun on the slide) is a gentle accordion piece accompanied by guitar. Lovely and calm. Again it’s Isaac’s flute that becomes the icing on the cake. It’s almost a shame that Zon Op De Glijbaan is the last song he is a guest on.
But not to worry, on Ballon/Tosti (yes you did read balloon/ tosti) we get introduced to a new guest soloist, Frank van Vliet on trumpet. The song starts with a fast guitar chord that takes me straight to Spain. But when Wouter joins in on is accordion I am drifting even further away, over the big ocean towards Argentina and its famous tango music. Tango music is all about passion and drama off course, something you won’t find in that way in this scottish. But a tango is also about love and melancholy, it is a story put to music, and in Ballon/Tosti Wouter En De Draak do the same. It’s the combination of classical guitar, played in that typical Spanish style, and the accordion often used in Argentine tangos that does it for me, in my mind Ballon/tosti becomes a Scottish with the sound and the feel of a tango. When Frank finally joins in with his delicate trumpetsolo, I am truly convinced this song was recorded during a Argentine summer fiesta.
Now that I have this tango comparison in my head it’s really hard to get it out again. He’pter is a ballad and a waltz, so realistically as far away from a Argentine tango as possible , yet that melancholic accordion sound and the Spanish sounding acoustic guitar are so characteristic that my mind keeps coming back to the same conclusion.
Witte Tony/Witte Danny is cheerful song. A nice jig that just flows into the ears. Nothing more, nothing less.There is a bit more to tell about Dieseldrone/Menage A Trois. It starts Spanish again, with a nice guitar solo from Joris, accompanied by Wouter on his accordion. Roeland Uijtdewilligen’s percussion gives the music that latin feel, and when Frank van Vliet joins in with his trumpet we are ready for a lovely Latin American musical mix. Fast Spanish guitar lines, some delicate Mexican trumpet and the French accordion. This is Folk music, but from a totally different part of the world then we normally hear on CeltCast. The cool thing is that the guest musicians are not just there to add some musical flavour. No, they are allowed to share the spotlight, to help enrich the wonderful music Wouter and Joris have written. I also really admire the way the album builds up, and by that I mean the order that the songs are put in. Most of the times bands put their fastest, best songs in the beginning, slowing down towards the end. Not Wouter en de Draak. They do it the other way around. They start delicate and now, almost at the end of the CD, with Dieseldrone/Menage A Trois you hear their most energetic, powerful song. Not a bad choice, not bad at all.
With Monsieur 7 we go full circle. This delicate accordion solo takes me back to France again. Back to Paris. And back to my imagination. In the late evening sun an old Frenchman is sitting on une terrasse, in front of an old cafe in a quartier close to the famous Montmartre. The cafe sits in one of those small alleys you only find if you go wander around way off the beaten path. Our Frenchman, let’s call him Pierre, is playing his accordion. The knobs shining golden in the fading sun. We stop and have a listen. You can hear his life through the tender beautiful sound of his accordion. It was a good life, full of joy and love. You can hear it. You can feel it as you listen. Your heart warms to the nostalgic sound of the music and the taste of a dark red wine you are offered. You know this is a perfect end to a lovely day. As it is a perfect ending to this lovely CD. With the last fading note the story is told.
The last song? I’m pretty sure the band will stare at that line with a bit of amazement, pointing out a small, but not insignificant detail to me: ‘You do realise that there are twelve (!) songs on this album Cliff, not eleven????’ Yes Wouter and Joris, I do. But with Monsieur 7 you two have recorded such a perfect end to this beautiful CD in my ears, that I have started considering Gavotte De Grenoble as a bonus track. Even if it isn’t really true. *) And very nice bonus track if I may add. Again it has this contradiction in it, as it is a slow song, a touching French chanson, danced as a gavotte. And still I have that tango feel again, that hidden passion, that melancholic story underneath. Something that just runs through this whole album.
With this last song I finally figured it out! Wouter En De Draak play Argentine ballads. And they are seriously good at it. I cannot point out a single best song. This CD itself is the highlight. It is an album of consistent high quality. And it was a pleasure, a real pleasure to listen to. Although I used the word ‘melancholic’ a lot it’s not a sad CD. On the contrary. Yes it makes me nostalgic, but in a good way. Remembering summers filled with fun and laughter. In an odd way it makes me feel at home. It feels like a warm musical bath in which I can unwind and relax. This is not a ‘simple’ CD filled with balfolk tunes. This is a listening experience that will give you many a enjoyable moment. Well done, gentlemen and thank you. Merci beaucoup. Merci pour la très, très belle musique. And now if you will excuse me, I’ll be off, play the CD again and have another glass of wine with Monsieur Pierre.