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Belgian American Association Band celebrating 80 years

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 7, 2011

 Larry Huntington of Mount Clemens directs the Belgian American Association Band during a Nov. 30 rehearsal.

Larry Huntington of Mount Clemens directs the Belgian American Association Band during a Nov. 30 rehearsal.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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Its first tunes were played under the auspices of the Belgian American Business Men’s Association.

Formed in November 1931, its members first performed a concert in January 1932.

But unlike most of its contemporaries, this band has had staying power.

Now called the Belgian American Association Band — and open to members who aren’t Belgian immigrants or of Belgian descent — the community band is still going strong 80 years later.

“When we started in 1931, you had to be Belgian,” said the band’s chairman, Larry Mahieu of Fraser, a trumpet player who joined in 1973. Now, he said, there are “only five of us left that are still Belgian.”

The band practices twice a month in meeting rooms A and B of the Activities Center at the St. Gertrude Campus of Our Lady of Hope parish. It is still sponsored by the Belgian American Association — that group changed its name in 1977 — and performs at many functions of the club, including a “Sinterklass,” or Saint Nicholas, party held by the Gazette Van Detroit, a Belgian-American newspaper.

Throughout the years, the BAA Band has played at historic occasions, such as the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, and as part of the six-day bicycle races that were held at Cobo Arena.

Now under the direction of Larry Huntington of Mount Clemens, a former band teacher in Lake Shore Public Schools, the group boasts about 55 members, with a core group of about 25-30, Mahieu said. It has been practicing in St. Clair Shores for about five years, and performs many of its events in the city, as well. The Belgian American Association holds its meetings at Barrister Gardens.

“It’s a place to come and just have fun,” said John Jonassen of St. Clair Shores, who has played tuba in the band almost 50 years. Both his father and grandfather played in the band, and his brother, Paul, plays percussion. Paul Jonassen joined in 1973.

“Years ago, companies had their own bands,” said John Jonassen, who calls himself an “honorary” Belgian. “Everybody had their bands, and everybody knew each other. That’s how the camaraderie started back in the 30s.”

He said he thought it was “fantastic” when the band celebrated 80 years in November. “What other musical organization’s been around for 80 years?” he said.

Not all members are local, though. Roger Loridon, a Belgian immigrant, drives down from Emmett, Mich., to play tenor saxophone for the band.

He said he came to the U.S. in 1955.

“A week later, I was already in the band, and I’m still here,” he said, explaining that he likes the organization because “you don’t lose your nationality. I enjoy playing.”

The band was a family tradition for many, said Al VanDenBergh of Algonac, who has played clarinet for the band for 55 years. His father was a member, as were his brothers and his children, at various times over the years.

“Now I’m the only one left,” he said.

They play such pieces as marches from John Philip Sousa, Broadway numbers, polkas and waltzes. At its most recent rehearsal, the band was working on music for its upcoming Christmas concert Dec. 14, running through songs like “Carol of the Bells” and holiday medleys. The BAA Band hosts a holiday and springtime concert each year.

And not everyone has been a part of the group for decades. Flutist Patricia Lange of Clinton Township joined just last year.

She played music when she was growing up but had to put it on the backburner for a career. Now that she’s retired, she said, “I’ve joined two bands.”

“The people are great. It’s very inspiring. It’s wonderful to keep up the tradition of a concert band.”

Huntington, who has been the band’s musical director for three years, said that the group is very warm and inviting — and always looking for new members.

“I understand that people … are just here to have a good time,” he said. “The band wants me to lead them along, help them to be better.”

The Belgian American Association Band will perform a Christmas Concert at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in the Activities Center at St. Gertrude Church, 28839 Jefferson Ave. The concert is free and open to the public, but freewill donations are welcome. The band will also play a spring concert at the Assumption Cultural Center.

Anyone wishing to join the band can contact Larry Mahieu at triplejm@wowway.com. Members must provide their own instruments and music stands.

For more information on the band, visit www.thebaa.us/band.aspx.

 

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