Volendam is a small fishing town bordering the former Zuiderzee (the current IJsselmeer). It is known to tourists because of the nice old village and the traditional Volendam costumes. It became tragic world news in 2001 when one of its cafés burned down, killing 14 and wounding 180. For many Dutch people it is known because their football team, clad in orange, has in 55 years of professional football suffered degradation from the premier league nine times and came back to the premier league just as many times – hence their team is also called “the back and forth”.
And it is widely known for its music. Since the invention of the “Palingsound” (“Eel sound” - Volendam was, and still is, a fisherman’s village) at the end of the 1960s, represented by The Cats, BZN and numerous other groups, Volendam is a household name in Dutch pop music. Up till today – news items, docusoaps and concert registrations of Volendam singers like Jan Smit and Nick & Simon are regular items on Dutch television. And now another Volendam group, The 3J’s (Jan, Jaap and Jaap), will represent the Netherlands at the Eurovision Song Contest.
The first time I heard The 3J’s, their unusual sound struck me: a mixture of – amongst many things - Palingsound (the sound is very much Volendam to me), Benny Neyman, Boudewijn de Groot and the Dutch folk-revival sound of the 1970s and ‘80s - The 3J’s use the mandolin prominently in many songs, often combined with a flute and sometimes a fiddle, which leads to a folksy sound (listen for example to “Net Alsof” or “Wiegelied”).
It brought Wolverlei to my mind. Wolverlei? Yes, Wolverlei. A Dutch, nearly forgotten folk-revivalgroup of the mid-seventies (but check the anthology Dutch Rare Folk). They issued two records, and I think they are among the best examples of what the Dutch folk music revival was. Wolverlei not only came to my mind because of their mandolins, fiddles and flutes, but also because they actually re-used quite some fieldwork recordings from Volendam singers of the fifties. They especially liked this Volendam, pre-Palingsound repertoire because of the specific singing style, called “mooi zingen” (“nice singing”) in Volendam, characterized by extensive embellishments of the melody.
“Now that is something to write about”, I thought. Would there be a link between The 3J’s and “mooi zingen”? I was sure no-one would have come up with that idea - who cares about “mooi zingen” and The 3J’s at the same time?
Of course I was wrong. In his musicology master’s thesis of 2005, Grigori Sarolea extensively discusses “mooi zingen” as a distinct musical style, and in a coda links it to the question whether or not this style could be found back in Volendam’s (post-)Palingsound today. Sarolea shows that Volendam singers, in their aspiration to become national pop singers, suppressed the more extensive embellishments in their singing over the years. He also claims that it is impossible to say whether the vocal embellishments heard these days are remnants of “mooi zingen” or influences from American singing styles in soul and r-and-b (or even from Greek music – Palingsound had a tendency to conjure up a Mediterranean atmosphere by using bouzoukis and mandolins).
And I must say: I hardly hear “mooi zingen” back in The 3 J’s – and the faint echo I occasionally think I hear is maybe pure imagination. Sarolea foresees a possible revival of “mooi zingen” within Volendam pop music at the end of his thesis, but that may not have taken place after all.
So now The 3J’s go to the Eurovisoon Song Contest. Will they win? I think not. A song was chosen without what I think makes them such an interesting group: without the mandolin, the flute, the fiddle, without the intimacy some of their songs breathe. They will sing an average pop song with echoes of U2. I would have given them more chance if they would have used their more folksy sound. It might have brought over the idea that there may be something “genuine Dutch” in our contribution, without losing the connection to the average pop sound required at festivals like these. And if they would have incorporated “mooi zingen”, the whole of Europe would have been stunned and voted as one man for the 3J’s, I am sure.
Grigori Sarolea. “Bokkingsound. Een onderzoek naar het `mooi zingen’ in Volendam.” [“Kipper-sound. An investigation of `mooi zingen’ in Volendam.”] Master’s thesis Musicology, Universiteit Utrecht, 2005.
But see also: “Valse noten in rolmopstheorie. Recensie van een muzikale mis`grijp’.” Stichting Volendams Behoud, 2008. An interesting furious 17-page reaction from within Volendam on Sarolea’s thesis. The heart of the reaction consists of the reproach that Sarolea has focused not on “the” Volendam singing style but on only one element of it, and that he has made use of a too small sample of recordings with a too limited number of singers. To me it seems, although maybe slightly overdone, actually a legitimate reaction which basically points towards the possibility that in Sarolea’s research project too little fieldwork and too much desk research has been carried out.