Gerard Kempers (1948-2005)

     • Short tribute        • Personal Statement       • Photos    
P Tagg home page     • Leefbar Zuidoost       • Gerard’s weblog

I was very shocked to learn yesterday (30 September, 2005) that my old friend and comrade-in-arms, Gerard, had died quite suddenly the day before. Between 1975 and 1981 Gerard and I worked closely together on what, by the end of 1981, turned into the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM). Without Gerard’s dedication to the democratic goal of including the music of the majority of people in school and university curricula, without his outstanding interpersonal and administrative skills, and without his ability to size up situations and turn ideas into real actions there would have been no Amsterdam conference in June 1981. Without that conference we would have had to wait years before being able to establish IASPM.

Anyone who has derived any benefit from IASPM is indebted to
Gerard’s tireless work for the cause between 1975 and 1983

Gerard Kempers (right) with David Horn and Philip Tagg (left), co-founders of IASPM. Amsterdam, June 1981.

Top Short tribute from David Horn and Philip Tagg
(read at funeral, 5 October, 2005)

We are very sorry that we cannot be with you in person today. We are, however, definitely with you in our thoughts and emotions. We thank you for this opportunity to pay tribute to Gerard.

All members of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), today over one thousand people in thirty-odd different nations, are indebted to Gerard. Without him there would have been no International Conference on Popular Music Research at Amsterdam in June 1981 and, consequently, no international association, at least not until many years later. It is in no mean way thanks to IASPM, and to Gerard's crucial role in establishing it, that popular music is now on school and university curricula around the world; it is even on the agenda of local, regional and national governments.

Thank you, Gerard.

We still do not fully understand how Gerard managed, on a shoestring budget, to organise the Amsterdam conference in 1981. True, his administrative and interpersonal skills were always outstanding but we are inclined to believe that it was his unswerving passion for justice and democracy that drove him to work so hard and so resourcefully. Whether he was involved in music education, media production or local politics, if Gerard saw half a chance to make the world a better place he would not hesitate to take effective action.

Thank you, Gerard.

Gerard was our friend and colleague, in some ways also our comrade-in-arms. He was a man of integrity, originality, generosity and courage. In his all-too-short life he made a real, positive difference. We are deeply saddened that this truly good man is no longer with us. At the same time, reflecting on his generosity and dedicated sense of justice, we feel all the more resolved to try and follow his example, to shed whatever light we can, to give whatever power and voice we can to those who have little or none.

Thank you, Gerard. Venceremos!

Top Personal statement

I first met Gerard in 1975 in Örebro (Sweden) at the Nordic Piano Teachers’ annual conference and workshops. Both of us were like fish out of water in discussions about the best fingering techniques to use in Beethoven sonatas. I had been asked to talk about popular music education and Gerard was on the lookout for fresh ideas for his art college in Lelystad. “I didn’t have a clue what you were actually saying” (in Swedish), he told me “but it seemed to make sense”. What Gerard said he was trying to achieve in his college made perfect sense to me. He was determined to democratise music (and media) education: he wanted to right the wrong that consisted of excluding the music of the popular majority from officially sanctioned institutions of education and research. I had found a good friend and powerful ally. We kept contact from that time until very recently.

A couple of years later we started to formulate ideas about setting up some sort of conference or organisation that would bring people together from different countries, disciplines and professions, something that could counteract the isolation and marginalisation experienced by anyone at that time trying to study popular music in a serious fashion. Gerard, an unstoppable humanist and democrat, was dedicated to this cause. His energy and enthusiasm were matched only by his enviable interpersonal and administrative skills. I still don’t know how he pulled off the extraordinary feat of organising the first International Conference on Popular Music Research in Amsterdam (June 1981), as a result of which IASPM was founded. It was on a shoestring budget that Gerard managed to book a large lecture theatre and the foyer of one of Amsterdam University’s central buildings; he even found funds to enable speakers from Eastern Europe to attend the five-day event. All I had to do was to send out a call for papers and to plan the sessions. Gerard did virtually all the rest. It is no exaggeration to say that without his resourcefulness, hard work and dedication there would have been no Amsterdam conference in 1981 and, without that conference, no IASPM, at least not until many years later.

Gerard came to the second IASPM conference in Reggio Emilia (1983) and to the third here in Montréal (1985). Although he was as happy as I was to see IASPM gain strength, he was disenchanted with its increasing bias towards the academic side of popular music studies. The association’s interprofessional aim, which respected the competence of musicians, journalists, media workers, cultural administrators as well as of university academics was, he felt (and I agreed), being sidelined. The point here is that Gerard did not just think: he did. He put ideas into action and his passion for democratic empowerment led him to work first in radio and TV education, then in documentary film making, and finally in politics. I was, and still am, an academic by trade who needed IASPM, whatever its weaknesses at that time. On the other hand, Gerard, a symphonic percussionist, accomplished jazz and rock drummer (see his excellent book on the topic), teacher, cultural administrator and media practitioner (popular music knowledge if ever there was!) had little use for IASPM the way the association was going in the late eighties and early nineties. I sorely missed his pragmatism and no-nonsense populism during that rather dull and unproductive IASPM decade of over-theorising. His absence in IASPM since the mid-eighties has also meant that very few members are aware of the crucial role Gerard, his knowledge of popular music and his practical passion for the people played in the establishment of an association that has helped many of us out of the hole of isolation and marginalisation. This paragraph is here to set that record straight.

I am also very grateful to Gerard because, even during what I see as the fallow years of IASPM (c. 1985 - c. 1995), he always seemed to find time to incorporate my brand of research into his own practical and didactic democratic agenda. His unmistakeable interest and enthusiasm encouraged me greatly to believe that what I was trying to do as an academic was not totally useless. In 1987 we produced a series of school radio programmes about popular music for AVRO (Hilversum). To my great surprise and delight (Gerard was much more confident!), this series, Muziek maakt alles mooier (roughly translated = Music Makes it more Amusing), ended up winning the prestigious international Japan Prize for best educational radio production of the year. Although I had planned the series’ content, I think our success was largely due to Gerard’s professionalism, efficiency and ability to lead and work together with a team. I was particularly struck by the excellent rapport he established with all collaborators on the project, particularly by his respect for the competence and creativity of our sound engineers. I learnt a tremendous amount from Gerard by working on that project, knowledge that has enabled me to subsequently improve my teaching and presentation skills.

During the 1990s Gerard produced several important documentaries. He was particularly passionate, I remember, about the fate of Rinus van Galen and Maarten Mourik, both of whom he interviewed at length about their time doing forced labour in Nazi Germany’s munition factories and about what happened to them after the war. Although they were only two of 500,000 Dutch citizens deported into forced labour on behalf of the Third Reich, Gerard was able to give a public voice to all those half a million of his forgotten fellow countrymen. The stories of those two men represented, he thought, an important part of Dutch history that had to be brought out into the open. (documentary Een koffer in Berlijn, 1997. See also, for example, De maakbaarheid van de natuur, 1996, about nature conservation issues in the Netherlands).

For the last few years of his life, Gerard worked as member of the local borough council on the ticket of Leefbar Zuidoost (LZO, literally “A Liveable South-East”), a party which he co-founded (no surprise there!) and which is clearly dedicated to grass-roots democracy (again, no surprise!) in the multicultural southeastern suburbs of Amsterdam where he lived. Just type | "Gerard Kempers" Amsterdam | into the Google search box and you will uncover a huge amount of incontrovertible evidence (in Dutch) of Gerard’s unswerving dedication to real democracy, transparency, political accountability, ecological common sense, economic and social justice, etc. One channel Gerard used a lot to help him towards these goals was his weblog,, to which you will find hundreds of hyperlinks from individuals and organisations in the Netherlands (especially in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost). It is typical that friends and colleagues first suspected that something was wrong when his weblog went silent because, right up until the end, his life was passionately dedicated to shining a light where it was dark, to giving a voice to those who had none, and to empowering those who had no power. His bullshit detector was keen and infallible but he was always ready to listen to those who dealt openly and honestly with him. He wanted to make whatever world he lived in a better place, whether it was in music education, media production or local politics. He was a man of great integrity, originality, generosity and moral courage. In his all too short life he probably managed to change more things for the good than most of us are ever likely to achieve. He put his neck on the line and made a real, positive difference. If anyone lived out the maxim “love thy neighbour as thyself”, it was Gerard. I am deeply saddened that this truly good man is no longer with us. At the same time, reflecting on my knowledge of this man who am privileged to call my friend, on this occasion of his untimely death, I feel all the more resolved to stand up to the big bullies and Ja-Sagers of this world, all the more determined to do my best to give whatever light, power and voice I can to those who have little or none. I’m certain that Gerard would not have wanted it any other way. I will miss him badly. Venceremos!

Philip Tagg (Montréal, 1 October, 2005) Top

June 1981, Lelystad (NL). P Tagg, D Horn, Gerard Kempers after
1st IASPM conference

Simon Frith, David Horn, John Shepherd and Gerard Kempers drinking tea
chez Tagg in Göteborg (Sweden), 1983 or 1984
Note the very 80s Gone with the Wind poster, behind John's head, featuring Reagan & Thatcher and the text
“She promised to follow him to the end of the world. He promised to organise it”

Gerard, IASPM conference Montréal, 1985

Gerard with my daughter, Mia, New Year 1988
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Manuel, Marineke and Gerard, Spring 2002