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A to Z of world music

With lutes, flutes, drums, zithers, and mouth organs like bunches of petrified icicles, Japan's Imperial Gagaku is a rare sight - the name literally means "elegant music" - and it offers a comparably rare aural experience. With its weird dissonances and its languid swoops and slides, the music itself seems petrified. And in a sense it is, for the repertoire hasn't changed in 1,000 years. The style came from China around 500 ad, and the medieval Japanese court fixed it forever. Two months ago, Japan's ministry of education launched an extraordinary new scheme, in which all Japanese schoolchildren must now study at least one of Gagaku's ancient instruments as a compulsory subject.

Some will learn the koto - a zither consisting of 13 strings stretched over a two-metre curved wooden plank - and more will study the shamisen, which is Japan's answer to the banjo. Yet more will take up the taiko drums which have earned groups like Kodo global fame. Not many will major in the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) because it can take you six months to get a note out of it. Japanese teachers are currently undergoing crash courses in these arts, which are as unfamiliar to them as they would be to teachers in the West.

That Japan's aristocratic musical styles have survived at all is thanks to the Kabuki and Noh theatre traditions, whose master musicians transmit their skills to monastically dedicated pupils, and whose audiences have never melted away. Traditional folk-music, on the other hand, has been preserved through its centrality in peasant life. Every village must stage its ancestral dances each summer, and those who have emigrated to the cities must come home to witness them.

While there's no shortage of CDs of Japan's thriving club music - The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan (RGNET 1031) gives a good overview - CDs of its classical music are rare. Japon: Sankyoku (Ocora C560070) offers an exquisite illustration of the magic which can be created with the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. The perfect antidote to football mania.

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