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A to Z of world music

"Take your shoes off,"the children are told as they file into the South Bank gamelan room. "Find yourself a place by an instrument and sit cross-legged. And treat them with respect - walk around them. In Java nobody ever steps over an instrument." A tutor takes a key from one of the xylophones, passes it round, and they're astonished at its weight. Then it's put back, and in turn they strike it: a magical sound. The smallest girl in the class gives the lightest felt-hammered tap to the biggest gong of all, and the floor vibrates to the slowest, deepest beat they've ever heard. Welcome to the world of the gamelan, a newish craze in Britain, but in Bali and Java the norm for 500 years.

A gamelan is often described as "one instrument played by many people" and it's unlike an orchestra in that nobody conducts. Its dozen players may occasionally give each other a nod or wink, but essentially each piece is built up by a rhythm felt in common, and by the intricate musical edifice they carry in their heads. The biggest gongs are struck with padded mallets, the middle range with hammers made of wood, and the smallest are hit with buffalo horn: this makes for a delightful mix of textures, even though all the metal is bronze. In parts of Java where bamboo grows luxuriantly the gamelans are made of giant bamboo segments, and the sound has a different timbre. But all gamelans serve a ritual purpose, and generate a uniquely tranquil mystery.

It can take a lifetime to master this art, and when the Javanese courts were at their most powerful each would have its resident composer. In today's strife-torn Indonesia this art is no longer central, but there are still plenty of gamelan schools to which Western enthusiasts flock for tuition.

To gen up on gamelan styles, consult The Rough Guide to World Music (Penguin), and listen to Flute and Gamelan Music of West Java (TSCD 913). And with more than 50 gamelans in Britain, there's a good chance of finding one at an arts centre near you. There's nothing like gamelan for fostering, even in difficult children, the co-operative spirit.

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