Music Banyumas Bamboo Gamelan QEH London

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The Independent Culture
It's official - so far as rock 'n' roll is concerned, Banyumas, in distant Java, is the new Memphis / Liverpool / Hamburg (delete as appropriate). The Banyumas Bamboo Gamelan performed at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall as though the players were wired to the mains electricity supply - the gong player even managed to fall over while sitting down. On their first trip outside Java, the winners of the 1994 calung competition brought local music from Banyumas to the UK for the first time.

Vocalist Astuti, movement restricted by her clinging red-and-gold sarong, teetered on stage to lead the nine blue-clad musicians through renditions of calung, a raucous musical form performed on bamboo gamelan. The extraordinarily elastic music sped up, slowed down, and zipped off in new directions at the drop of a headscarf, with the musicians in total control and demonstrating sensational virtuosity. Unlike traditional bronze gamelan, bamboo instruments have no natural sustain, so tempos tend to range from the merely frantic to the completely berserk.

Astuti provided archetypally piercing Indonesian vocals while the ensemble supplied senggakan, the exuberant shrieks and cries that are an essential part of the music of Banyumas. A shimmering orange-clad male dancer with a wooden-frame horse bounded on for the ebeg trance dance, an appropriate match for the clip-clopping of the bamboo accompaniment - programme notes warned that, in his entranced state, he might start to eat leaves, glass and stones, but perhaps he wasn't hungry. Somewhat reminiscent of Michael Jackson, he followed his dance with a sterling performance on a variety of percussive devices.

Lyrically, the songs referred to seizing opportunities, the beauty of a dancer, the human condition and praise directed at Allah, although the subject matter could have been bovine spongiform encaphalitis for all the difference it would have made to the by now ecstatic audience. Two lithe dancing girls appeared and accompanied the pointillist chattering of the bamboo with elegant forays forwards and back, displaying an amused charm the while.

Most of the players switched to drums for the percussion finale in a Javanese drum-'n'-bass-style jaipongan work-out that brought the audience to its feet, whistling and stamping and begging for more.

The two dancers reappeared holding long orange scarves and descended into the audience to wrap them around the necks of likely looking victims, whom they then dragged up on to the stage to dance. This is part of the lengger dance tradition that accompanies calung (which once enjoyed a rather salacious reputation, until the Indonesian government stepped in), and the stage was soon full of gamelan groupies and Princess Di lookalikes cavorting in an attempt to keep up with the quicksilver Indonesians. A completely unprecedented success - forthcoming dates on their current UK tour should not be missed on any account.

n Banyumas Bamboo Gamelan perform at 2pm today, Phoenix Arts Centre, Hastings (01424 722612); and at the WOMAD Festival, Reading, Fri to Sun

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