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At the onset of summer, Brussels swaps brogues for [fb02] ip-[fb02] ops during one of Europe’s hottest world music festivals. Nina Lamparski peels back the layers of the city and reveals the hot beats simmering beneath its surface

Wearing nothing but a yellow summer dress and floppy straw hat, the tanned girl twirls, twists and spins around barefoot in the sand. Her long, dark curls are flying as she wiggles her hips to the pulsating salsa rhythm. The sun is blazing and a sweet smell of coconut and deep-fried churros fills the air. People eager to quench their thirst are queuing in front of thatched-roofed huts, where smiling vendors sell rum-based concoctions and fresh fruit cocktails.

Suddenly, the dancer lets out a shriek of excitement, throws her hands up and starts to yell: “Gilberto! Gilberto!” Her voice is joined by thousands of others, all chanting in unison. Thunderous applause erupts when a man appears on a raised stage, his greying dreadlocks tied back into a ponytail. Grabbing hold of a microphone, he strums a few notes on his guitar, then turns to the buzzing crowd with a huge grin and shouts: “Bom dia! Todo bem?”

This is none other than Brazil’s minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, who also happens to be a Grammy award-winning musician. Seconds later, the legendary songwriter and his band unleash their mighty signature sound of bossa nova, African rhythms, soul and reggae, and the fans go wild.

Gilberto Gil’s group was one of the main acts at the 2007 Couleur Café festival, a celebration of all things multicultural that attracts more than 70,000 visitors every summer. But he was many miles from his hometown of Salvador. Because, believe it or not, this sizzling, weekend-long extravaganza happens right in the heart of Brussels.

It’s easy to forget that the Belgian capital doesn’t just harbour bureaucrats, chocolate shops and 450 different types of beer. Nearly 56% of the city’s population are, in fact, foreigners and many come from Morocco, Africa, and Latin America. As a result, there is a vibrant mix of ethnicities and the philosophy driving Couleur Café is to emphasise and celebrate cultural diversity, tolerance and solidarity.

What started off as a small-scale event in 1990, inside a former market hall, has evolved into one of Europe’s most successful urban festivals of world music. Last year’s stellar line-up included reggae veterans Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and UB40, virtuoso kora player Toumane Diabaté, hip-hop grand masters The Roots, US rappers Kelis and Sean Paul and dub fusion trio Gotan Project. This year’s programme promises more of the same, with names like MC Solaar, Kassav, Omar Perry, Zucchero, and Jimmy Cliff.

Nevertheless, the primary aim of Couleur Café is not to rake in big bucks. Alongside its more commercial acts, the festival prides itself on remaining a grass-roots event, offering a fun and experimental platform for new and untried artists. Musical boundaries are constantly broken down and redefined, with styles ranging from Latin, son, raï and rock, to ragga, dancehall, electro, Caribbean and rap.

The founder, Patrick Wallens wants to keep the festival and its artists from becoming pigeonholed. “We don’t have any desire to return to a cliché and a catalogue,” he says. “You, you’re world music because you do that. You, you’re jazz. You, you’re hip-hop. What about a rock-punk group from Barcelona? Where do I categorise that? Rock? World? Ska?”

Prior to Couleur Café, Wallens had already created an Afro-Cuban drum school as well as an artist management and production company. When the opportunity arose to finally turn his idea of a cross-cultural festival into reality, he jumped at the chance.

Set inside the Halles de Schaerbeek (a flourishing European cultural centre), the first edition featured a solid program of African and South American musicians plus souks, world-food stalls, artisans and brass bands. It was unusual for a jamboree of this calibre to take place against an urban backdrop rather than being organised outside city limits in some field. The event proved an instant success, drawing about 5,300 people.

Fast-forward two decades and Couleur Café now showcases an average of 40 concerts over three days at the stunning industrial grounds of Tour & Taxis. Once used as a railway station, the site and its red-bricked warehouses have been redeveloped for cultural and residential purposes.

It provides the perfect setting for the eclectic festival, and is big enough to accommodate its huge open-air space, big marquee stages, clubbing area, art exhibitions, 50 international kitchen stalls, cocktail bars, flea market, dance classes, creative workshops and stands of NGO representatives.

One of the best things about the family-friendly Couleur Café is that there’s always room to breathe, no matter how busy it gets. And, at €33 for a day ticket or €69 for the entire festival pass, the occasion won’t leave a hole in your pocket. Starry nights, sensational live music, delectable food and a trip around the world without leaving the city – this is one Brussels experience not to be missed.

Couleur Café takes place on 27-29 June. For tickets and more information, visit www.couleurcafe.be

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