Talking in rhythm

13th April 2001 at 01:00
How do you get French and English teenagers to communicate with each other when neither speaks the other's language? Easy. Teach them Javanese. Sarah Horrocks and Julia Lawrence explain

Within minutes of stepping off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, in Paris, a group of Year 10 and 11 pupils from south London are singing in a foreign language. Not French, but Javanese. And they're not alone. A group of French teenagers they've never met before have joined them to form a cross-Channel choir.

The English children are from the Lilian Baylis school in Lambeth; the French pupils are from College E Michelet, a Paris secondary school. Their week-long meeting is part of a joint music project between the Royal Festival Hall in London and Cite de la Musique, a music complex in north-east Paris. They barely speak a word of each other's language, but they have something important in common - they know how to play in a gamelan. A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble, consisting of about 20 singers and musicians playing gongs and metallophones, a keyed instrument struck like a xylophone. It is an invaluable teaching medium, especially for mixed-ability groups, as it requires no music specialism but gives pupils experience of a sophisticated, collective musical environment.

The gamelan is not all the children have in common. Lilian Baylis and College E Michelet are both inner-city schools with all the problems and challenges associated with deprivation. And they are both cultural and racial melting pots - the London pupils are all of non-European heritage, with families in the Caribbean, Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Tunisia, Morocco and Mali; many of the Parisian children are recent arrivals in France.

The exchange is part of a gamelan education programme that started 12 years ago between the Royal Festival Hall, a partner of Lambeth education action zone, which jointly planned and funded this project (see box), and Cite de la Musique. Pupils from Lambeth and Paris schools come together to develop a range of musical skills, including composition and performance.

Five days of intense music work will challenge the British students, some of whom have learning and behavioural needs; each child in the French class has a special need. And everyone on the trip - teachers, music tutors and pupils - is concerned about how the two groups will get on, especially as they can't speak each other's languages.

"I thought we wouldn't get on, we wouldn't speak," says Jaydi, 15, later. "When we got there some of them spoke a bit of English, and after a while we learned how to speak to them. Language ain't nothing really. We just get on with them as people."

On the first day, they sit far away from each other; neither will risk appearing "uncool". On day two, the gamelan tutors divide the students into pairs, each with a French and a British pupil. The language barrier means the only option is to communicate musically; this proves a turning point.

Jemima wasn't sure what to expect. "I thought they would ruin everything with our group," she says. "I thought it would be hard to communicate with them, but it wasn't. You can't understand thm and they can't understand you, but you can still sort of understand each other."

Natasha didn't think the groups would mix. "On the first day everybody stayed with their particular group but we'd all mixed really nicely by the end," she says. By the final day the groups are walking around Paris with linked arms and there are tears when it is time to say goodbye.

The education programme at the Cite de la Musique is based on world music. The pupils take part in Brazilian, Arabic, Basque and gamelan workshops and use the recording studio to mix and sample their work.

"The best thing about coming here is the experience you get," says Jadi. "We've made our own pieces on the gamelan, and we got to mess about with samples we took from the Arabic and Brazilian drumming workshops.And we made our own electronic pieces. I want to be a singer, and working in the studio made me feel like a singer. I liked the technical stuff too."

The work demands a lot of concentration. At times the pupils find it exhausting as well as exhilarating, but there is a tangible sense of achievement. One of the most popular and challenging workshops is the Basque session, in which the children use planks of wood with a variety of tones to generate call and response rhythms. "I've learned that you can find music anywhere, out of any object," says Aaron.

One pupil in particular plays a moving duet with the Basque music tutor which holds everyone spellbound. This boy is not used to excelling at schoolwork and the experience has a profound effect on him. "I didn't know I was that good at something," he says. He also becomes a bit of a hero to the French pupils.

Working together on music has noticeably improved the students' confidence, social skills and ability to remain engaged in a task. The Lilian Baylis teachers say the students now have a positive experience of learning; teachers from College E Michelet say their class has never been so motivated.

The visit makes both groups aware of the differences between the French and British school systems. One French pupil says they are no different as people; it's just a question of "la loi de l'ecole" - school rules. The French find the British "plus decontracte" - more laid-back.

The project has been a cultural exchange on many levels. The pupils have learned about music from other parts of the world and about other cultures and languages. What began as a music project has had far-reaching implications for their overall learning. It has been as much about making new friends, about trying new foods (including snails) and getting to know a new country and city, as about playing music together.

Both groups will now practise what they have learned. The pupils from Lilian Baylis will produce compositions to be submitted as part of their GCSE music coursework. And they all met up again last week, when the French pupils came to London for more performances and workshops with resident orchestras and the gamelan at the Royal Festival Hall.

Sarah Horrocks is co-ordinator of the CfBTLambeth EAZ international projects. Julia Lawrence is performing arts education officer at the Royal Festival Hall

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