How did you become a musician?
I got the musical genes from my grandfather, a passionate and talented organist who taught himself how to play in the 1940s. When I was 9 years old I started taking guitar lessons. My teacher was at home in many markets: he played classical, jazz and rock, he was the first to set me on the road to finding my own sound and style. Later I immersed myself in the world of the classical guitar at the conservatory for 5 years. This entire course ran parallel to the opening of my own personal music horizon: the discovery of folk & jazz in my early teens, playing in all kinds of orchestras and bands.
What gives you satisfaction in being a musician and putting your own music into the world?
I find the satisfaction in stepping down from my personal path as a musician. You grow as a person, as a player, as a fellow musician, as an accompanist. The journey I’ve traveled so far has given me a lot of experience and confidence. That feels very good at the point where I am now. I also enjoy traveling and meeting: other musicians, singers or band members, but also with students or the public. Music as a catalyst for connection.
What makes the music you wrote real ‘Maarten Decombel’ music? Can you say you found your own voice or is this quest still going on?
If you truly put your heart and soul into music, you can never say you’ve found your voice, as the proverbial end of the ride. Of course, after 20 years of playing you have a kind of recognizable sound, phrasing and a formed vision of what you do, but you keep working on that every hour, every minute, every second. That’s the fascinating thing: you’re always searching. The day you think “we’re there”, the books can go right away. I am lucky enough to play together with very diverse projects and people, which means that I am obliged to adjust my ideas every time. You learn from every musician you play with, every day.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I’ve always been a voracious listener of all styles, genres, players across the board. That is definitely something I got from home: open ears for classical, folk, jazz, rock, whatever comes on the road. Being curious & amazed always feeds inspiration. I’ve always been very easily excited by friends who talk very compellingly about their new discovery. So that inspiration actually comes very easily from all sides.
You play both music where someone sings and instrumental music. Do you prefer one of the two? Is it harder, or just different, to tell a story with instrumentals?
No, no preference at all. Although I really like working with singers. I have had the chance to work with some great calibers such as Evelyne Girardon and Jim Boyes, but also Martin Simpson, Ulrika Bodén, Tim Eriksen, Sofia Sandén, Fay Hield, Robb Johnson,… You can choose an instrument, your voice not at all. It is a kind of ultimate coincidence between the personality, the body with which you have to do it and the brains with which you control your music. There’s a kind of “nothing in the hands, nothing in the sleeves” kind of thing, which is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity.
There are some musicians you often work with. Is playing together different when you know each other so well? Does it also bring difficulties when friendships and work are so mixed up?
The main groups I play with (Snaarmaarwaar, MANdolinMAN, Naragonia Quartet) have been around for a long time, usually with unchanged line-ups. That feels like a blessing to me, a great comfort. Because it creates the space for real deepening, you know each other’s small sides, but above all you know where each other’s talents lie. That just makes your music better. Bands that create together in constant tension, it wouldn’t be for me.
Folk music is often made for dancing. Do you like to dance yourself? Is it different to play for a dancing audience than a standing or seated audience?
It’s definitely different, but I like both. It’s great to play for dancers. You feel even more the connection between players and audience and the impact of your playing is immediately very visual. Sometimes the finesse of your musical story is lost, but energy, swing and arrangement make up for a lot. At the same time, there is nothing more beautiful than when you let your instrument sing in all facets and registers and you can hear a pin drop with a listening audience that is completely on board with your trip.
Can you tell us your favorite anecdote from your life as a musician?
At a Göze concert there was no space behind the stage, so we entered through the back of the hall. Lights go out, applause, we step through the audience towards the stage. We bow in advance but I hadn’t seen where the chair was. So I sit down right next to my chair and I fall completely backwards, followed by a hellish noise, a guitar that was almost total and my ribs bruised. Then that typical 3 seconds of absolute silence after which a buzz rises, a mix of concern and weak laughter at the funny scene. The ice was immediately broken.
Which concert, as a musician or an audience, has stayed with you the most?
When I was 12, I saw Angelo Branduardi with his band at the theater in Bruges. I couldn’t take my eyes off his guitarist, who very calmly supported and directed everything diagonally behind him. That seemed like a wonderful place to sit: let his singer shine from the back line, but at the same time be an indispensable link in the whole.
What are your future plans? What big dream do you still want to realize?
The fourth album of Snaarmaarwaar will be released in the spring of 2023, for which I wrote all the music. Spilar and Naragonia Quartet will soon be entering the studio for new recordings. This season I have also been invited to play in the prestigious French music production SAUVAGE: an international orchestra of jazz, classical and folk musicians plays a modern reworking of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s harpsichord music. It is a great honor for me to be the only Belgian musician to be part of this special project.
In addition, I am especially happy that the gently rumbling train of concerts, lessons, balls and encounters seems to be back on track after the corona standstill. During that period of closed halls and canceled festivals, I realized even more how valuable music is as a motor of social life, as an “initiation” to bring people together. Hopefully, policymakers will not forget this in the future.
Compile a list of 5 songs that inspire you
1/ Fugue BWV 1000, JS Bach https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbfXzcN_66M
2/ Dernière Route from Fuera, Jean-Louis Matinier & Renaud Garcia Fons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsnPVoS3_jk
3/ Helicobtir, Trio Lopez-Chemirani-Petrakis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phqJG-4RyLg
4/ Les Jours Heureux, Hamon Martin Quintet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfN1yvv4blM&list=RDsfN1yvv4blM&start_radio=1&rv=sfN1yvv4blM&t=0
5/ Message To A Friend, John Scofield & Pat Metheny https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UiP7RM0tdI