Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 10:23 UK

Belgium's (Eurovision) chance for unity

By Oana Lungescu
BBC Europe correspondent, Sint-Lievens-Esse, Belgium

Belgium's Dutch- and French-speakers are deeply divided over language and politics but Eurovision could bring them all together in harmony.

Members of Ishtar - 15/5/2008
Soetkin Baptist has the task of singing O Julissi's invented lyrics

The Belgian entry for the Eurovision song contest, O Julissi by the Flemish group Ishtar, is sung entirely in an invented language.

Luckily, composer Michel Vangheluwe also speaks very good English.

I found him practising his guitar at his home, a converted barn in the Flemish village of Sint-Lievens-Esse, just hours before he was to fly to the Serbian capital Belgrade where the band is to take part in Tuesday's semi-final.

Like all the members of Ishtar - named after the Babylonian goddess of love - Michel is a classically trained musician.

His band could be described as Euro-trad rather than Euro-trash, as their repertoire consists of traditional and mediaeval love songs from all over Europe sung in the original, whether it is Icelandic, Estonian or Bulgarian.

Michel has also written a few songs in languages that do not exist. But even he admits the lyrics of his latest offering do not trip off the tongue:

"O julissi na jalyni, O julissi na dytini, O bulo diti non slukati, Sestrone dina katsu..."

Luckily, he will not be the one singing in Belgrade, but the fiery mezzo-soprano Soetkin Baptist.

The only words that most people will understand are "kolosali krokodili" - possibly a reference to the band's mascot, a toy crocodile called Mr Croc.

Other parts of the lyrics are inspired by Ukrainian and Serbian.

Linguistic squabbles

Although the song was not composed especially for Eurovision, some hope that the Slavic-sounding lyrics might appeal to viewers in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union who would not otherwise consider voting for Belgium.

O Julissi composer and Ishtar member Michel Vangheluwe
O Julissi composer Michel Vangheluwe was inspired by his childhood

But that is not what Michel Vangheluwe had in mind.

"When I composed the song, it reminded me of my childhood," he explains.

"I was very touched, because I really felt the happiness and the joy of a child that doesn't have any problems. This is maybe why people understand the song even when they don't understand the words."

Michel says he did not want to make a point about Belgium's never-ending linguistic squabbles.

On the contrary, he says, the imaginary language could be "a symbol for bringing people together".

"Language nowadays can be a political issue, but it shouldn't," he adds.

"Music is something that brings people together and whatever language you sing in, you get the message and that's the most important thing."

As someone who has widely toured throughout Europe, Michel sees no problem with many communities living together in one country:

"I feel Flemish, but I also I feel Belgian, I feel European. I also love the Balkans. I actually feel I have some Balkan blood!"

Rotating selection

In the local cafe, Ishtar's chances in Serbia are a hot topic for debate over a cold beer.

Ishtar fan Myriam with the lyrics to O Julissi
Ishtar fans have sent O Julissi to the top of Belgium's Flemish charts

"Belgium - 12 points!," shouts Georges, who has been following Eurovision for years.

Another neighbour, Myriam, takes the lyrics to O Julissi out of her bag and sings it with gusto.

Others in the village have put up Ishtar posters in their windows.

Belgians seem to have a special talent for performing in invented languages. In 2003, the folk group Urban Trad came second with Sanomi, the first time anyone had sung in an imaginary language at a Eurovision song contest.

Urban Trad was the choice of the French-speaking broadcaster RTBF, which alternates in selecting Belgium's Eurovision entry with VRT from Dutch-speaking Flanders.

This annual rotation system, together with the lack of national charts, means that one half of the country often cheers for a song the other half has never even heard.

Peter Vantyghem, music critic for the daily De Standaard in Brussels, says O Julissi reached number one very fast in the Flemish charts, but has not even been released in French-speaking Wallonia.

But, he points out, the same thing happened in 2003, when Sanomi did very well in the Francophone charts, but only became a hit in the Flemish charts after its Eurovision success.

The press coverage of Ishtar also reflects that split.

While the band has gone almost unnoticed in the French-speaking press, De Standaard has almost daily reports from Belgrade following their progress.

The highlight was the rehearsal where the singer's red and white dress slid down to reveal a black lace bra.

But if Ishtar does well in Belgrade, Peter Vantyghem thinks it could all change:

"I think suddenly their song would go from being a Flemish entry to a Belgian entry.

If Ishtar wins, then Belgium will be united, at least for one evening!"

But do not hold your breath. An online bookmaker rates Ishtar's chances of winning Eurovision as 100-1.

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