Next week's bash at the Royal Albert Hall is going to be different, says Nigel Williamson
Those of a nervous disposition might want to take their earplugs along to this year's Music For Youth Schools Prom. Not for fear of anything remotely discordant, for the calibre of the young musicians (ages ranging from five to 21) in the 32 groups due to perform at the Royal Albert Hall next week has never been higher.
But this year's event promises thundering rhythms and shuddering percussion the like of which the Schools Prom has seldom heard in 26 years of celebrating the talent of Britain's best young musicians, singers and dancers.
Of course, there is much that is reassuringly familiar about this year's line-up. As ever, the indefatigable Antony Hopkins will be there as guest conductor and there will be an impressive array of conventional youth orchestras, bands, choirs, soloists and ensembles - many of them from schools which seem to have an endless supply of fresh talent, sending new groups of virtuoso young musicians to the Prom every year.
But there will also be much that is new, ranging from the five to eight-year-olds of the Ursuline prep school in Brentwood, Essex, who play a group of singing vegetables in their presentation of The Vegetable Plot, to the Year 3 pupils from St Peter's junior and infant school in Stanley, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, who will present their version of the Pandora myth in a production called The Box. There's even a full children's opera, The Raven King, at the closing event next Wednesday, from the Caerphilly Massed Choir (a Caerphilly Kids' Opera production reviewed in Artbeat on March 17 after it was performed at Schools Prom Wales).
But perhaps the most exotic - and certainly the loudest - performances over the three nights are likely to come from two new all-drumming groups which take rhythms from around the world and mash up a bone-shaking, foot-stomping, earth-quaking, irresistible percussive storm. "The thing I love about it is that the sound is so loud that when you're playing the rhythm goes right through your body," says Sarah Parker, a Year 11 pupil from Oak Farm community school in Farnborough, Hampshire. She is one of 15 drummers, all aged between 14 and 16, who make up Oku Nojo Daiko, a group specialising in the traditional daiko drumming of Japan.
Located on a former London overspill estate, Oak Farm has a high percentage of pupils receiving free school meals with families on income support. The drumming group grew out of a Year 9 project organised by Carol West, head of music at Oak Farm. Genuine Japanese shrine drums are made from hollowed-out tree trunks. It takes four years to dry and mature the wood and each drum costs about pound;4,000.West, with some assistance from her blacksmith father, made the drums in her garage using oil drums and skins fashioned from heavy-duty PVC groundsheets. "It began as a one-off classroom project, then we started getting asked to play at fetes and do worksops in other schools. As far as I know we are the only school daiko drum group in Britain," West says.
"They got hooked and quickly picked up the Japanese scales. They're now composing and performing their own music, based on traditional Japanese rhythms. It's very physical. Big sticks, big drums, big noise and teenagers - it's the perfect combination."
The fame of Oku Nojo Daiko (it translates loosely as Oak Farm Drums) has spread. Last month West had a letter from a school in Australia asking how to make the drums. This year the group has appeared on Blue Peter and BBC Music Live and at the Hampshire World Music Festival. "People are already trying to book us for 2001 and I'm wondering what to do because our Year 11s will leave next year." Step forward Craig Oliver, a Year 10 pupil who started drumming this year. "You have to practise a lot and you get blisters on your hands but it's thrilling. When we play, everything vibrates," he says. You have been warned.
The Broadwater Farm Drummers and Dancers promise to be equally exciting and almost as noisy. The performers are from Broadwater Farm primary school in the London borough of Haringey, on the estate synonymous in most people's minds with the riot of 1985. "The group really comes from the community," says Daphne Raven, the school's music and arts co-ordinator. "It wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for the parents." Roger Hunte, a professional percussionist who was once a pupil and whose eight-year-old son Runaco is now enrolled at the school, teaches drumming to the 30 seven to 11-year-olds while dance is taught by another parent, Rose Russell.
"The group includes children of Caribbean, African and Turkish descent as well as white children, but the rhythms are mostly Caribbean and African," Raven explains. "They've become really dedicated. Some of the children were hard work at first and had problems with concentration and discipline. But it's been great for their confidence and self-esteem." When the group performed at the South Bank earlier this year in the regional Music for Youth festival, it was the first time most of the pupils had been in a concert hall. "We've learned not to be shy on stage," says Esther, aged 10. "We really use the drums to express our feelings." Dorcas, the group's seven-year-old star dancer, is even more confident. "I feel like a pop star when people say they like my dancing. I hope we become very famous."
Daphne Raven, who has been at the school for 10 years, has got the rhythm bug. She's been taking lessons from Roger Hunte and now spends many of her weekends at drum workshops. She acknowledges that the estate has a poor reputation. "Appearing at the Schools Prom allows us to show Broadwater Farm in a positive light," she says. "There are a lot of problems here. But there are also a lot of good things happening."
The Music For Youth Schools Prom, Royal Albert Hall, November 6 - 8. Tickets: 020 7589 8212. Music for Youth: 020 8870 9624