Hypnotic beats

Nicki Household enters the Royal Festival Hall's temple - the Gamelan room

The Royal Festival Hall's gamelan (traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble) has a purpose-built room all to itself and to enter it is to step straight into the heart of another culture. Set into decoratively painted wooden benches, the rows of tuned gongs and metallophones are arranged in squares on a carpeted floor, around a pair of hand-beaten drums.

The gamelan room has a temple-like aura. As a mark of respect musicians remove their shoes before sitting on the floor to play. Most of the instruments are only about a foot off the ground, but etiquette decrees that you always walk around them rather than step over them. Though Buddhist in origin, the gamelan incorporates both Hindu and Muslim musical influences and dates back to at least the seventh century. This particular one was made in the late 1970s and comes from central Java. It was presented to the British people by the people of Indonesia as a gesture of friendship in 1988.

The ensemble is like the percussion section of an orchestra, expanded into an orchestra in its own right. Some sections look like xylophones mounted on metal cylinders, while others resemble rows of large and small bronze cooking pots. All the instruments are hit with cloth beaters or mallets made of water buffalo horn. Traditionally, gamelan is played by about 20 musicians and singers and is often used to accompany dance and puppet shows. It's a type of music-making that rewards players at every level, because the instruments sound good even when played very simply.

Some British devotees study gamelan for years, becoming ever more skilled at playing, composing and improvising. Yet it's astonishing how much a group of 11-year-olds can achieve in a two-hour workshop. "The great thing is that it allows people to be in a musical situation without any prior musical knowledge," says Robert Welch, the RFH gamelan co-ordinator. "Even starting from scratch, a group can come together very quickly and create quite complicated music within the space of a workshop."

A class of 20 first-years aged 11 and 12 from King Edward VI School, in Southampton, have come as part of an extended studies programme that includes a World Music module. After a brief discussion about the nature and origins of gamelan, the pupils are distributed around the eight sets of instruments. First, the two drummers practise a straightforward eight-beat rhythm. Then another group are given a simple series of notes to play within the repeated eight-beat pattern. Gradually each group joins in with its own specific note or notes until quite a complex and beautiful sound has been built up.

The challenge is to remember exactly when your instrument joins the pattern - which might be on the odd beats, the even beats or even the off-beats, and to produce a clear ringing tone that is neither too soft nor too loud. Within a short time the children are all concentrating fiercely because if you don't, you're lost. They must also clock what the other instruments are doing because once they've mastered their own set, they will move to another. When everyone is playing confidently, Robert joins in with improvised solos on the suling, an end-blown bamboo flute, or the rebab, a little bowed instrument adorned with red velvet and tassels. The total effect is hypnotic and the pupils are clearly delighted with their achievement.

Though especially relevant for students who have chosen gamelan as a GCSE World Music topic, gamelan introductory workshops are available for all age groups from seven up. The maximum group size is 20, but bigger classes can be split between two one-hour sessions. While one group is in the gamelan room, the other does an alternative activity such as the RFH trail. There is also an advanced Saturday morning class for young people who already have some gamelan experience, and a Gong Club for younger children. Miriam Newton, music teacher at King Edwards, finds it links well into her pupils'

extended studies work. "Every first-year pupil visits the gamelan when they do the World Music course and I show them a video of gamelan with puppets before they go. It's useful for them to get their ears round non-Western scales because we do a lot of pentatonic work. We also have classroom glockenspiels and xylophones so it's good for their improvisation technique to see ostinato (repeated patterns) in action. And of course it's terrific fun - they really enjoy working as an ensemble."

A two hour workshop (weekdays, 10.30-12.30 or 2-4) costs pound;65. Booking forms are available from: The Gamelan Co-ordinator, Performing Arts Education, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX. Tel: 020 7921 0848Email: rwelch@rfh.org.uk

WHAT'S IN A GAMELAN?

The most fundamental instruments of gamelan are the 14 bronze gongs, which resemble giant frying pans. Nine are tuned to the pelog (seven note) scale and five to the slendro (five note) scale, and they are played, not "hit". They hang from scarlet ropes attached to two horizontal poles at the back of the ensemble and an elaborate carved Javanese sea serpent winds its way along the top of each pole. The gongs act like conductors, drawing attention to important landmarks in the music and emphasising certain notes in the melody. Normally they are all played by one person standing between the two poles. The largest gong is also used to bless and bring good luck at naming and opening ceremonies.

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