“YOU FIND THAT SOMETHING SPECIAL HAPPENS WHEN YOU SING IN GRONINGS”
Last year, singer/songwriter Marlene Bakker released her debut album RAIF out. Entirely in Groningen, and produced under her own label RAIF Records. Reason enough to put her to the test about these special choices.
In a society where the trend is more inclined to anglicise, you chose to sing in Groningen, why this choice?
“It was always in the back of my mind to sing in Groningen, but the idea only really grew when I had lived in Brabant for a while. I got so homesick for Groningen and started listening to Ede Staal. Those lyrics hit me hard. I suddenly understood what he was singing and thinking about -wow- maybe I can also sing in Groningen.”
Marlene grew up in Smeerling, which is located in East Groningen, a small paradise in Westerwolde with a lot of history and a great source of inspiration for her album. Her parents spoke Gronings with each other, but decided to raise their children in Dutch. After high school she went to the Rock Academy in Tilburg, where Marlene initially wrote songs in English. In Brabant, where people had never heard of 'sloppy' biscuits, the homesickness eventually became so great that Marlene decided to go back to Groningen.
“I then started to study Groningen and took courses at 't Huis van de Groninger culture. I had no idea about the grammar. That really felt like you are learning Chinese. It is as if you first feel a huge distance and have to bridge that distance again with such a course.”
The distance that Marlene had to bridge twice – from Brabant back to Groningen and from Dutch/English to Groningen – brought her closer to herself and her music. It has become part of her working method.
“I noticed that I was writing very differently than in English, and that it really started to be about something. In English everything sounds very cool and cool quite quickly and you sing things like 'baby I love you' faster. In Groningen I did it really differently, at one point I had written a song in which I sang 'I'm hollow of that'. And I remember very well that I was practicing with my guitarist at the kitchen table and had to laugh a lot, I just couldn't get it out of my mouth. I love that one, you don't say that so quickly. So you have that in yourself, but also in the audience, you notice that something special happens when you sing in Groningen. You start listening more attentively, and there is a lot of recognition in it from people who have heard it through their grandparents.”
She shows that a regional language is not rustic, but can also be soft, graceful and poetic. And one of the greatest benefits of music and art is this effect, which makes us more aware that a language is worth preserving. In the cultural sector we all think we know where to go, and that is more often towards the Randstad than the North. Quite a brave choice to choose Groningen as a musician and to take this environment as a source of inspiration. Still, Marlene doesn't feel like a Calimero:
“I am very proud of my roots. And I think it's a great pity when we are put away in the media as a wing province. And that that is very sad, we have so much space and great initiatives here. A lot is happening in the cultural field, and we still have those old regions here with beautiful farms and guarantors. I see a lot of wealth here. It is that the NAM is messing up so much for the inhabitants of the earthquake area. Those people are just very screwed up, I can get very excited about that. Absolute."
Photographer Erikjan, a real Frisian, fills in. Do you also sing about the NAM?
“My first single Loat Grunnen nait sacks was an earthquake song. The lyrics of the song were written by poet Hanne Wilzing from East Groningen, who came to me through a musician friend, asking if I wanted to sing it. That's how I also met guitarist Bernard Gepken, who played it on guitar. And with him I ended up writing a lot of songs for my album. I really liked the lyrics, so I said yes, it's just not my ambition to become a protest singer or to keep bringing up this theme. I just want people to see and hear beautiful things. I think you can achieve much more with that in the rest of the country.”
Her album was well received in the rest of the country. When asked whether she has also received strange criticism of Groningen, Marlene replies:
“Many people think that because you play in a different province you also get completely different reactions, but that was not actually the case. Because whether people understand it or not, it does come in and it touches them. I once played at Noorderzon and then friends of mine were in the audience and were gauging the reactions and people didn't know what language it was. That they only found out later that it was Groningen. They listened so open-mindedly that they thought I came from Sweden and I often get that kind of reaction. Scandinavian or Celtic or something. Gronings is a Low Saxon regional language, this language is much older than Dutch, so it is logical that the public sometimes thinks it is a different language.”
It is funny that the comments she does sometimes receive come from the imbued, often slightly older Groninger herself. Then she is told that her Groningen is not Groningen, an accusation that makes her very insecure. Fortunately, Marlene has inherited enough sobriety from her soil.
“There are eight variants of Groningen and language is a living thing, so if you want something like this to continue to exist, you may have to be more generous with it. If you condemn people, you also silence them and your language may die out in your generation. I found that difficult in the beginning. Then you notice that language is such an emotional thing. The same applies to the anglicization, you can't stop those changes anyway. In the end you just have to draw your own plan. And grow a little thick skin and go for it, continue with what you think is beautiful. But it has been difficult at times.”
Perhaps that is why she chose the powerful title RAIF. Raif means tool and she sings on the title song of the same name "Everyone in the sight raif, each in the sight tied", everyone has their own time and their own tools to do something with it. Her father was a restorer, his tools were his hands. That of Marlene's voice and her writing skills. That is the theme of her album. In this way she plays with her origins and makes the Groningen language, which is also time-bound, her own. It is, as she calls it, quite an interesting battle. On the one hand it is conservative, on the other hand something is passed on. You keep the language alive.
Bringing a language to life, a tight idea of an album, and also releasing it under its own label. Marlene admits: “I can be stubborn and willful, and a control freak. When I look at my own record collection, there are all musicians who do their own thing completely. For example, the American singer Ani DiFranco. She started making music at the age of fifteen and has now released more than twenty albums. All under her own label, she has always done everything herself. I thought that was so cool. I also didn't feel like handing over all my time, energy and money and then some record company puts a stamp on it and then nothing happens with it. I've seen that so much with others and I just thought 'that's not going to happen to me' then I better do it myself.”
Immediately afterwards she briefly dismisses her choice as 'just a number at the Chamber of Commerce'. But according to Marlene, it's still nice to be in control. This way she could monitor the quality of the production at all times.
“It was quite lonely and heavy at times, but fortunately I have very nice band members and I was able to discuss a lot with Bernard. It was also really nice to have such personal contact with everyone. Also with the shops, for example.”
With Bernard she decided not to make any concessions for the sake of quality. Putting out an album and regretting it afterwards because you wanted to save money, that won't happen to her. The entire process tasted so much like more that new songs are now on the shelf. A few more have to be added and then Marlene and Bernard will hopefully go back into the studio early next year.
“Raif is such a good base on which we can continue. We just want to continue to deliver quality and hope that it will continue to move like an oil slick.”
We conclude that we are happy that Marlene has chosen to return to her desire and has listened to this album. What, according to Marlene, is the most beautiful Groningen? “I think Oet tied bowls is beautiful, that means someone has fallen out of time, so to speak”, but also the more cheerful 'swallowing', which means candy, is popular.
Text: Yvonne Zeegers
Image: Erikjan Koopmans