Busy times for student with barrel organ, “touching to see the effect it can have”

Barrel organ music is requested for an unsuspecting birthday girl or boy and, before you know it, an entire audience is singing along from their balconies overlooking the square. It may be only a small bright spot in difficult times, says Mechanical Engineering student Thijs Haenen but “it's terrific to be able to do something like this.”

photo Monique van de Ven

Haenen, a master's student of Control Systems Technology, was only a child when he became fascinated by the barrel organ. For a good number of years now, he has been out and about giving performances. With bookings averaging ten to fifteen a year (among them for the past eight a regular gig in Eindhoven city center), he regularly finds himself retrieving his barrel organ (the 'Fata Morgana') from storage in Tilburg. But this month the counter has already passed fifty. “The barrel organ has lately surged in popularity.”

Haenen thinks he has an explanation: “It is an easy way to reach a large number of people, to lift their spirits, and you can do so at a distance. You can reach an entire apartment block all at once.” Take Thursday evening, for example. He was standing in a square in Tilburg to celebrate the birthday of someone who currently cannot leave their home. “I started with ‘Happy Birthday to you’ and eventually the balconies overlooking the square, which was surrounded by tall apartment blocks, were full of people singing along and clapping. The man was staggered. It's touching to see the effect it has on people on such an occasion.”

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No hero

Touching, but also a little awkward, adds Haenen at once. “I don't view myself as a hero in the current situation. I am just trying to give people some enjoyment. Even when I'm travelling from one gig to the next with my barrel organ, people I come across start to applaud. Everywhere you go, you get such a warm reception.”

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Video | Monique van de Ven

Thijs Haenen and his barrel organ in Best

Video | Monique van de Ven

In recent weeks his bookings have increased sharply. This change came about after he decided to skip his Eindhoven city center gig one Saturday just recently. “Everything in the city was closed and there was no one around. Instead I drove around Eindhoven, just randomly, through residential neighborhoods and past care homes. That in itself was a big success.”

After that he started getting requests: “Couldn't you come here and play for my mother?”. After the individual requests, it wasn't long before the healthcare institutions were calling him up, “To ask whether I could come and play at their premises.” Sounds lucrative, but as Haenen points out, “I'm not looking to make a profit from this. Instead I've deliberately dropped my fee. After all, it's great that I can do this, but I'd rather it wasn't necessary.”

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Welcome pastime

Frequent gigging has come as a very welcome pastime for Haenen. “I'm not someone who likes staying indoors at the best of times and, what's more, my street is being dug up at the moment so I've got two weeks of noise to look forward to.” Normally, this tenth-year student works three days a week in addition to following his master's program. “I'm no longer receiving any student financing and soon I'll have to pay back everything. But it's a bit quiet on the work front right now; I'm not allowed to go to the office.”

And so, for the time being, equipped with his barrel organ, he is visiting places all over the province for his own and other people's entertainment. Yesterday we saw and heard Haenen at work in Best. This week his musical fixtures include Tilburg, Geldrop, Heeze, Waalre and Oirschot. As always, he will adapt his playlist to suit his audience. “Whenever I see some younger faces, I mix it up a bit”.

The current circumstances are something else he is taking into account, Haenen explains. “I've stopped playing some numbers, like ‘Another one bites the dust’ for now; it feels a little inappropriate. And at the moment I'm opening with ‘Brabant’ by Guus Meeuwis. A mellow start and almost everyone knows it and can sing along. The whole ambiance that number creates just feel good right now.”

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