Zjef Vanuytsel, the Dutch-speaking chansonnier
Jozef Guillaume Dymphna Vanuytsel, better known as Zjef Vanuytsel, was a Flemish singer born in Mol, Belgium on 6 July 1945.
He made folk music and was specifically known for a style of music called Kleinkunst (literally ‘small art’), a term that, in Belgium, refers to the simple style of music sung in Dutch, with an acoustic guitar, in a rather intimate setting.
The style can be compared to that of the chanson mastered by that other famous Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. Vanuytsel has stated that Brel was a major influence on his work. At the same time, Zjef took inspiration from beyond the borders of Belgium, with major folk and rock acts like Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Zjef Vanuytsel is often put forward as one of the faces of the kleinkunst genre in Flanders, together with Willem Vermandere and the late Wannes Van de Velde. They are even referred to as the Big Three of kleinkunst. However, he has said that he preferred to be referred to as a ‘song maker’ (‘liedjesmaker’) or as a Dutch-speaking chansonnier.
The chansonnier released six albums in his lifetime, but the most successful of all was his debut album, De Zotte Morgen (‘The crazy morning’). It is commonly referred to as a classic and sold 100,000 copies. The track after which the album is named is one of his most famous songs, along with Houten kop (referring to a hangover), Hop Marlène and Ik weet wel mijn lief, a song he wrote about his wife.
Besides his musical career, Zjef was also an architect. He completed his architecture studies at Sint-Lucas in Brussels and managed to leave his mark in that way as well. He designed the buildings of several municipal administrations (those of Huldenberg and Bertem, both in the province of Flemish Brabant). He also contributed to the design of several cafés (the Nero comic strip café in Hoeilaart and De Markten in the heart of Brussels) and cultural centres (like GC Den Egger in Scherpenheuvel, a pilgrimage town close to his hometown of Mol).
Zjef Vanuytsel’s architectural career explains the almost twenty-five-year gap between his 1983 record Tederheid (which translates as ‘Tenderness’) and his final album, Ouwe makkers (‘Old buddies’), which came out in 2007.
Vanuytsel passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer on 30 December 2015, at the University Hospital of Leuven.
He was posthumously inducted into the Gallery of honour of the popular song in Flanders (De Eregalerij) in 2016, placing him in the company of other great Belgian artists such as Toots Thielemans, Salvatore Adamo and Arno Hintjens. His song De zotte morgen had already been inducted in 2008. He has also been commemorated with a bronze statue in Meerhout-Berg, near Mol, in September 2022.
Photo: © Paul Van Welden / CC-BY-SA 4.0