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Light Music During the War Years

Like classical music, light music was also impacted by the directives issued by the Department of Public Information and the Arts. The departement imposed a ban on “music and lyrics alien to the people and detrimental to taste.” Jazz had to be purified of “Negroid” and English-speaking elements".

But all this did not prevent jazz and swing orchestras like The Ramblers, Boyd Bachman, and Dick Willebrandts from achieving immense popularity during the war years. Additionally, the ban on English led to an increase in the number of songs in Dutch. 

Announcement Dick Willebrandts swing orchestra (source: NIOD/WWII Imgage Bank)
Announcement Dick Willebrandts swing orchestra (source: NIOD/WWII Imgage Bank)
"They knew the orchestras from the radio, and when they heard that signature tune and the curtain slowly parted, there sat that famous orchestra. The audience in the hall would cheer, forgetting the bread coupons, the wooden bicycle tires, the clay soap, the unheated boys’ rooms, the ban on Boy Scouts and the AJC [the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale, a socialist youth organization], the shoes patched six times over, the Germans, and all the other rotten swine. There before them were their radio heroes in white band jackets with slide trombones and blaring trumpets, movie moustaches, and a raging drummer, music stands with glittering letters, microphones, and a wonderful girl with jet-black hair in a show dress with décolleté singing Diep in mijn hart [“Deep in My Heart”] bathed in a soft, red spotlight. Show!”

One would be hard-pressed to find a better description of the great attraction that light music had in the war years than this captivating excerpt taken from artist Eddy Christiani’s memoirs. Entertainment meant a few hours of forgetting and of people being together surrounded by the darkness of the theater. Sometimes it also offered them emotional support, helping them face their daily cares and concerns again with courage. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that so many “chin up” songs were sung at that time.

Lyrics Policed by the Germans
All lyrics had to be submitted for prior approval to the Departement van Volksvoorlichting en Kunsten [Department of Public Information and the Arts], sometimes facetiously referred to as “Public Fraud and Favors.” The Departement was run mainly by Dutch Nazis. As a result, singers and comedians always had to watch what they said and sang. Anonymous informers regularly attended performances and would diligently note any anti-German innuendoes, enumerating these in harsh little reports submitted to the Departement. Not only did their accounts include anything (Source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)
(Source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)
even remotely suggestive which was said onstage, but also any open reactions from the audience to remarks that, on paper, carried no explicit anti-German message.

Jazz Denounced as “Alien to the People”
The censors strictly maintained the ban on artistic elements that they deemed “alien to the people.” One example was jazz, which Departement regulations described as “exhibiting to a large degree the characteristics of improvisation, performance, composition, and arrangement by Negroes and Negritos.”

Registering with the Kultuurkamer Acts as a Work Permit
Like all other artists, entertainers and musicians were also required to register with the Dutch Kultuurkamer ["Chambre of Culture"]. Without proof of such registration, musicians were not allowed to perform in public. Wim Ibo, who broke through as a cabaret artist during the occupation, said later, “It was like a work permit you had to have.” At that point, no one actually had to become a member per se. There were plans to eventually turn it into a members’ organization, but it never came to that. Consequently, those who claimed never to have been members after the war were actually telling the truth. This system also provided the Germans with the perfect opportunity to immediately shut Jews out of their professions. On the list of questions, applicants had to specify whether they were Jewish. If they answered yes, their application was denied. “Negroes, Malaysians, and Indians” were not admitted either. By applying as Dutch, however, a number of Surinamese musicians were able to continue working up until the beginning of 1943.

(Bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)
(Bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)

Blame Laid at the Door of Jewish Impresarios
Outwardly, the Kultuurkamer was propagated mainly as a means of ridding the profession of disreputable performers, whose numbers had indeed swelled during the crisis years, since no work could be found elsewhere. Many then tried to turn their hobby into a profession, and the result was rarely one of top quality. Many professional entertainers and musicians had long been opposed to such dilettanti. D. Beuzenberg, head of the Kultuurkamer’s Entertainers Group, avidly took advantage of this fact.

As an orchestral conductor, Beuzenberg had acquired first-hand professional experience before the war. He proclaimed that impresarios, who arranged performances for entertainers and most of whom were Jewish, were entirely to blame. His ambitious vision involved a drastic reduction in the power wielded by the impresarios (even those who were not Jewish), a policy in line with that of the Kultuurkammer in Nazi Germany, which had evolved into a kind of artist management organization. Commercially based human trafficking had to be utterly eradicated, he claimed. Beuzenbergs’s resentment was great: The Jewish impresarios had been passing on all professional engagements to fellow Jews before the occupation, he wrote to his superiors. Worse still, he said, “I could write volumes about this terror and the suffering it has caused my colleagues and their families.” In his pursuit to establish better working conditions for musicians, in itself an understandably justified undertaking, Beuzenberg managed to win the sympathy of a great many musicians.

New Dutch Songs Written Following the Ban on English
During the occupation, the Nazi regime’s brutal transformation of the entertainment sector had other effects than the elimination of Jews from the profession. It also set out to promote the creation of new repertoire. After the English language was banned, the number of songs in Dutch increased. Although English and American numbers were performed with Dutch lyrics (“In the Mood,” for instance, became In de stemming), this remained a risky practice. It was safer simply to compose new songs in Dutch, such as the scorching Zonnig Madeira [“Sunny Madeira”] with Dutch lyrics by Han Dunk, written for Eddy Christiani.

Tropical Bars Spring up Like Mushrooms
“No one was allowed to travel anymore; all you could do was think about it,” says Christiani. “The praises were sung of all those sunny places with which Germany was at war. One club after another was turned into a tropical bar. Joop Geesink painted sombreros everywhere. We, the musicians, wore cheerful Spanish blouses with big scarves. The costume offered another advantage, since it was impossible to get your hands on a dinner jacket at that time. There was Zomer in Arosa, als op Capri de rozentuinen bloeien, [“Summer in Arosa Like in Capri The Rose Gardens Bloom)The Kilima Hawaiians were immensely popular. Not only were their Hawaiian songs about sunny places that seemed further away than ever, but they also provided a useful cover for openly swinging. Music that was no longer officially allowed to be performed on a clarinet or piano could be played on a Hawaiian guitar. (source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)
The Kilima Hawaiians were immensely popular. Not only were their Hawaiian songs about sunny places that seemed further away than ever, but they also provided a useful cover for openly swinging. Music that was no longer officially allowed to be performed on a clarinet or piano could be played on a Hawaiian guitar. (source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)
”], plus a whole series of hits by the Kilima Hawaiians. They’d never been to Hawaii, just like I’d never seen Madeira.” The virtues of various heavenly bodies were also lustily sung. Naturally, the blackouts at night were unpleasant, but a positive spin could be put on them as well. The sky could be seen much better in the dark, as attested by popular songs like ’s Avonds bij het licht der sterren [“At Night by the Light of the Stars”] and Als sterren flonk’rend aan de hemel staan [“When Stars Twinkle in the Sky”].

At the same time, it provided a useful cover for just a little swing music. Music that was no longer officially allowed to be performed on a clarinet or piano could be played on a Hawaiian guitar. The Germans turned a blind eye to this “rampant, frizzy-haired nonsense alien to the people” but did try to control the worst excesses. The Germans claimed that music of excessive sentimentality could weaken the spirit of the people. Accordingly, from December 1943, performers were allowed to appear in Hawaiian outfits only if they had been issued a license expressly for this purpose and were performing as part of a variety show and for no longer than twelve minutes per hour.

War Takes Precedence over Entertainment: The End of the Kultuurkamer
Nothing came of Beuzenberg’s intentions to improve working conditions for musicians. He put these down on paper for his superiors once again in May 1944. But developments on the war front had become far too pressing for any attention to be given to the organization of light music. After the invasion of the Allied forces, a great many Kultuurkamer officials were ordered to join the Landwacht, the German Nationalsocialistisches Kraftfahrkorps (NSKK) [the transportation office of the NS party], and other armies to defend the country. What was left of the once so proud Departement van Volksvoorlichting en Kunsten was forced to move to the Dutch city of Groningen on September 18, 1944 - as far away from the Allied troops as possible. The handful of people left over from the Kultuurkamer in The Hague were left to sort things out by themselves, their days overshadowed mainly by the increasing threat of food shortage.

Author: Henk van Gelder