Bobbejaan Schoepen: Belgian musician who worked with Jacques Brel and Josephine Baker

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:49

The Flemish musician and businessman Bobbejaan Schoepen was a Belgian national institution. He was first and foremost a multi-million selling musician who worked with musicians as diverse as Django Reinhardt, Jacques Brel, Josephine Baker, Gilbert Bécaud, Heino, James Last, Slim Dusty, Roy Acuff and Red Foley.

He was probably the first major European musician to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the so-called "home of American music", when he performed there in 1953. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and represented Belgium in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1957. He also founded the Bobbejaanland amusement park that opened in 1961, long before Dollywood and their kind; when he sold his stake in 2004, it rivalled Disneyland Paris and Parc Astérix as a European tourist attraction.

He was born Modest Schoepen in Boom, a dot on the map, though he became its first honorary citizen on the occasion of the community's 700th anniversary in 2009. His father was a blacksmith and he probably would have followed his father's trade, except he took up guitar and began performing music in the village with his half-sister Liesje. During the Second World War occupation, he got into a scrape with the relatively tame anti-German sentiments of an Afrikaans folk song about never wanting to be a German. Afrikaans would provide his stage name, taken from a folk song about Bobbejaan climbing the mountain.

His early professional career found him accompanied by fellow Belgians Django Reinhardt on at least one recording session and Toots Thielemans as his touring guitarist. The chansonnier Jacques Brel was his opening act in 1955, the year before Brel's breakthrough. Travel certainly widened Bobbejaan's wallet, whether tours in Europe, the United States or Indonesia. In 1958 he appeared on the bill of the Royal Variety Show in front of the Queen Mother and picked up on Slim Dusty's "A Pub With No Beer". It became "Café Zonder Bier" ("Café without beer") in Flemish in 1959 and "Ich steh an der Bar und ich habe kein Geld" ("I'm standing at the bar and haven't any money") in German in 1960. It topped the Austrian charts and spent 30 weeks in the West German charts, establishing him as an international star. Another German-language adaptation "Ich hab Ehrfurcht vor schneeweissen Haaren" ("I've respect for snow-white hair") sold over three million copies. He was also a virtuoso kunstfluiter – a Flemish word for which English has no everyday usage. It literally translates as "art whistler" and in 2008 in Japan, Bobbejaan was inaugurated into the International Whistlers Hall of Fame.

Ken Hunt

Modest Hyppoliet Joanna Schoepen (Bobbejaan or Bobby John Schoepen), musician and businessman: born Boom, Antwerp Province, Belgium 16 May 1925; died Turnhout, Antwerp Province 17 May 2010.

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