MUSIC / Cultural melting-pot: Robert Maycock on gamelans, African drums and shakuhachis in 'The Big Event' at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
UPSTAIRS in the foyer, demure schoolboys in jackets and ties tapped at a gamelan. Below, the assembled music education establishment tried to dodge hundreds more pupils noisily at odds with an alien cultural form - the layout of the Barbican Centre. So many subtexts were flying around that it was a relief to reach the hall and be knocked sideways instead by a vigorous bout of drumming from Senegal. The Big Event - London Sinfonietta's 'Celebration of World Music' - was under way, and Arona N'Diaye and his colleagues were leading it.

At least, they were for a few minutes. Groups of school players took over with their own eclectic pieces for Western instruments with African drums. The enthusiasm count stayed quite high. It took a dive when the Sinfonietta followed with Nigel Osborne conducting his Zansa, a 15-minute piece with African influences, then turned up again for Vajahat Khan's sarod performance - a bit hasty by Indian standards, but short enough to keep Western listeners excited.

Yoshikazu Iwamoto, playing the shakuhachi - the bamboo flute - had the hardest task with his quiet and concentrated solo, but his hypnotic line held the crowd's attention. More school performers; then Geoffrey Dolton, with the Sinfonietta, sang pieces from Alec Roth's California Songbook: words by Vikram Seth, music a mix of gamelan and Adams, kids captivated by rude word in first line.

It was more like a fair than a concert. Then again it was never meant to be a one-off public event. This was the last fling of a year-long project that the Sinfonietta's education team had worked up with East Sussex schools, the outcome of a Sainsbury's Award for Arts Education.

First the teachers studied with the experts in Asian and African music, then the schools examined musical techniques in these cultures and the Western tradition. Then, with the help of Sinfonietta people, they made up their own pieces.

That makes a huge and daunting agenda. 'I can't pretend there is anything more than a grasping of some technical means,' says the Sinfonietta's education director, Gillian Moore. Essentially, the schools were learning to listen - and to understand, say, rhythmic structures by hearing them in different traditions - and then composing within their own culture, but with borrowings. 'I hope it's not an appropriation.'

Well, Debussy and Messiaen and Steve Reich appropriated when it suited them, and their music has not exactly suffered. If, as intended, the project opened minds to the nature of Western culture, it will surely have been the magpie tendency that got through. So far the Sinfonietta has ended up with plenty of fun and some fulfilment.

But it needs to continue asking itself questions too. Why did the audience warm to the 'imported' music and not to the Western? Does the approach to composing show enough respect to the cultures it borrows from? Can the students be exposed more directly to them, instead of having Western musicians to mediate?

Somewhere down the path it has started along, there lies a fork. One way takes you into a land that is no longer yours, while the other is lined with glass walls: you can see out, but nobody can get in to touch you. Let's hope these cross- cultural projects have the courage to take the harder route.