MUSIC / In perfect harmony: Stephen Johnson on diverse sounds and complex reactions at the 'Spirit of the Earth' festival on the South Bank.

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THERE IS world music and 'World Music'. A perfect demonstration of the latter would be Peter Gabriel's score for the film The Last Temptation of Christ: a British rock musician blends Armenian folk melody and African drum rhythms with the aid of the European synthesiser, and creates something surprisingly powerful in the process. The South Bank / Radio 3 / BT 'Spirit of the Earth' festival, on the other hand, is a celebration of the world's music in its rich diversity.

Once or twice during the course of this week's adventurous ethnic melee there have been reminders that 'crossover' is not an exclusively modern phenomenon. The Bhakti Bhajan Marga programme from South India contained one traditional piece, 'An English Note', in which drums and a pair of huge, fruity-toned South Indian oboes mimicked the sound of an Edwardian military band. The Senegalese chanting and drumming of Buegue Fallou hinted at Arab influences - almost inevitable in a country affected by Islam. With that and the rhythms of the Burundi drummers still pounding in one's ears, the African strain in the Venezuelan music played and danced by Entreverao stood out like a shot of rum in a fruit cocktail.

Still, there were kinds of music on display in which, for the uninformed listener at least, cross-cultural influences were obscure. What was striking here was the stylistic and impressive uniqueness, suggesting peoples strong in their roots and collective sense of self. Coincidentally or not, these often turned out to be the least aggressive, most inwardly calm sounds. The serene inventiveness of Indonesian Gamelan is now widely appreciated, and it has left its mark on quite a few composers since Debussy chanced upon it at the Paris Exhibition. But the playing of the Chinese Buddhist monks from Wutai was a new and uplifting experience. It was strange, too, for a Western audience to reconcile these gorgeously haloed instrumental songs with the row of dignified, impassive old men seated at a long table - as though quietly wondering whether to begin a parish council meeting. Not a spark of theatre there.

The other discovery of the week was the Georgian folk music of the Rustavi Choir: songs of extraordinary harmonic and polyphonic subtlety (at times it was difficult to believe that some Georgian Stravinsky hadn't had a hand in them), which ran almost the gamut of common human emotion with unforgettable poignancy and dignity. The artistry in a simple part-song such as Tsintskaro (sampled by Kate Bush in her album The Hounds of Love) is surely as high as in any short choral piece in the Western classical repertory.

One question returned from time to time: how many of these types of music are actually meant to be listened to in the Western concert-hall sense? Venezuela's Entreverao partly overcame doubts by inviting members of the audience up on stage, but that only intensified the off-putting package holiday flavour of much of their act. The only way to get more than earache out of Beugue Fallou's thunderous, musically primitive chanting and dancing would have been to jump up and join in - though most of us would have been content not to wallop ourselves with clubs. But these are minor reservations in the face of what has been a soul-restoring event. Perhaps the South Bank should hold a 'Spirit of the Earth' every year - there's plenty more 'world' music out there.