© Ingrid Jacquemart
At the very beginning of the 2000s, Jean-Yves Laffineur attended Manu Chao’s concert at Forest National. For him, it’s a slap. “I had rarely felt such positive energy. I thought it would be wonderful to try to perpetuate this energy from year to year, by organizing a world music festival, something resolutely committed.” With a handful of friends, the one who is still today the director and musical programmer of Esperanzah! mounted a first edition, in 2002, and installed it in the gardens of the Floreffe abbey.
The place is not chosen at random: in the 1970s, it had housed the Time of the cherries. Already a militant festival, defending the humanist values dear to Jean-Yves Laffineur. As for the name, it’s a tribute to Manu Chao’s second album, “Próxima Estación: Esperanza”. A way of placing oneself under the high patronage of the icon of alter-globalization. Who will also come to play twice on the banks of the Sambre, in 2007 then in 2016. “Through common acquaintances in the Barcelona underground world, I had met then sympathized with Manu in 2003. At the time, Esperanzah! didn’t have the logistics to accommodate the crowds that Manu was attracting, but he had promised to come when we were ready. Five years later, just a month before the event, he ended up calling me… We had already completed the program, but we couldn’t miss it. We added a day to the festival. It was an extraordinary concert, he partied all night with the volunteers. An unforgettable moment.”
On the rhythms of politics
Since then, “Espé” has established itself as the essential summer event for all those who want to sing and dance, while continuing to dream of changing the world. With in its DNA, from the beginning, solidarity and commitment. On the sponsor side, don’t look for brands that don’t have an ethical approach. No sparkling sodas made in the USA, but organic Silly pilsner, from the local brewery, or fruit juices (Oxfam, of course).
For this 20th edition as for the previous ones, the festival wanted to be as sustainable as possible, from waste management to the festival-goers’ plate. Plastic is banned (long live reusable cups), the decor is based on recycling, free drinking water. The organizers claim the choice of local suppliers, favoring short circuits. The musical program relies as much on discoveries as on headliners, who are not afraid to position themselves. And special attention is paid to programming choices to achieve gender parity (at least in terms of the number of musical projects that perform on stage, according to the methodology of the Scivias platform, which recently pinned French-speaking festivals on the question).
Stay on a human scale
If Esperanzah! plays the commitment card to the fullest, it’s probably also because he can’t really do otherwise. For 20 years, Belgium has never so deserved its label of “land of festivals”. Even more so this year, with the arrival of newcomers (CORE and ATØM, to name a few), competition is fierce to bring artists and festival-goers back within the walls of the abbey. Especially since the Lady of Floreffe is no longer very young. “The building is aging, and with the technical developments and ever more developed machinery that artists demand, this poses challenges for the organization of such an event. We seriously wondered if we were staying. In the end we are very happy, we resigned for five years.”
But there is no question of starting a race lost in advance against the big Belgian machines (Les Ardentes, etc.). “Impossible to position themselves, while some stars are now asking for 100,000 euros in fees. And then, we want to stay consistent with our social approach and offer affordable prices (the day costs 40 euros in presale, the full pass at 96 euros – editor’s note).”
For its 20th edition, Esperanzah! is meant to be “decreasing”. A watchword that seems at first sight contradictory with the decision of the organizers to add a fourth day. But the idea is to find a more intimate atmosphere, a festival on a human scale. By the day, the gauges will decrease”going from around 12,000 festival-goers per day to 10,000”. This additional day should also allow “spread the costs over four days. Economically, too, it’s a plus.”, admits the director of the festival.
More than an excuse to party
For Jean-Yves Laffineur, the Belgian competitive context gives the opportunity “to constantly refine the identity” of an event which, more than ever, is a sounding board for the ongoing struggles. The cancellation of the debt of Third World countries, climate justice, the right to food…, each year, the festival, through its Village of possibilities (which brings together the many partner associations), puts forward a thematic campaign made up of films, debates, animations and plays.
The 2022 campaign is called “Occupy the Ground”. “Occupying the land means highlighting all the local struggles, citizen resistance to occupation, in the face of real estate development, for example. It is to denounce large useless and harmful projects, such as the installation of Alibaba at Liège airportexplains Lora Verheecke, the campaign manager. All this while bringing the values of the festival to life all year round, not just for three or four days. This is why we offer thematic events upstream, such as a decolonial walk.”
This is undoubtedly the challenge of the exercise (and its limit?): to anchor this desire for lasting commitment in reality, and to be more than an excuse to party. “We obviously do not claim to hold the monopoly of the strugglescontinues Jean-Yves Laffineur. What we want is to contribute on our own scale, with the objective of raising the awareness of as many people as possible about certain battles. These fights will obviously be likely to be relayed more widely afterwards. In 2016, we campaigned against free trade agreements. Sure, we were just one of many cogs, but Esperanzah! made it possible to show that the citizens did not recognize themselves in this kind of treaty. And the Walloon Region ended up positioning itself against the TTIP.” Another positive point to put on the balance sheet: the Sacha plan. In 2018, in full wave #MeToo, the campaign of Esperanzah! is about “The Decline of the Male Empire”. It leads to a plan for Safe Attitude Against Harassment and Aggression at festivals (Sacha plan), which rethinks the entire organization with the aim of preventing and caring for victims of sexist and sexual violence. A plan that was then exported to other gatherings, such as Solidarités or the 24 Hours of Cycling in Louvain-la-Neuve.
In conclusion, “the debates, the campaigns that we lead, the concerts… our festival can contribute, even on our small scale, to finally make things happen, wants to believe Jean-Yves Laffineur. It is difficult, going through the festival, not to be touched emotionally. However, it is from the moment when there is emotion that we can hope to have change.”