Music PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA Union Chapel, Islington, London

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The Independent Culture
A composer friend of mine recently suggested that sending thousands of artists to the former Yugoslavia rather than thousands of soldiers might be more productive. Not the sort of artist Plato had in mind, the Damien Hirsts who might rock society, but the gentle types like Papageno who could take out their bells and charm their enemies into dancing to their tunes. As heads and bodies of a capacity crowd nodded and wobbled to the music of an aspiring Papageno and his band, an extended tour round the world's trouble spots by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra did seem to offer an original approach: Luton, Leeds, Portadown, Gaza, Srebrenica - especially as the Penguins take their musical cues from a pot-pourri of international influences.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra has been together for more than 20 years. Its founder Simon Jeffes "is probably most famous for creating something which simply doesn't exist", so the press blurb goes. Which doesn't exactly explain why a vast crowd of all ages in a funky chapel in Islington should yell, whoop and stamp for more. Classically trained Jeffes, bored or stumped in the early 1970s like many a composer of his generation, conceived the notion of "a mythical cafe where he recruited friends to make magical music from a bottomless well of random resources". The place was called Penguin Cafe and the musicians the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Which doesn't exactly explain what the music is about. "Rock musicians playing chamber music" was one hopelessly inadequate explanation given on Wednesday to an enquiring punter, while a more critical response from a non-yelper was "makes Michael Nyman sound like Stravinsky".

In 19 years the Penguins have put out eight albums, so finding out what they're on about shouldn't be too difficult, especially as their latest, Concert Program - which is the "program" of their current concerts - is a waddle through the past 20 years. Under the banner of eclecticism, Jeffes presents 20 tracks which include souped-up versions of a Madagascan zither tune, a Cajun waltz, a Venezuelan folk tune together with homages to John Cage and Giles Farnaby and "another celebration of the common ground between Cajun music and Pythagoras".

Jeffes is credited with having absorbed lessons learned from a multitude of musical cultures long before "world music" came into the vocabulary. But for any lover of the world's great indigenous music, Jeffes's tracks "executed with typical dreamy precision" suggest an arrogance and complacency of breathtaking dimensions as vital and energetic music is reduced to a flat, nostalgic, one-dimensional plain. Jeffes' musical horizons are smugly limited: stock harmonic progressions; stock rhythmic motifs; no dynamic contrasts - just gentle mind-numbing formulas, suggestive of music for an internationally sponsored travelogue where every sponsor wants an aural tag. The 10-piece Penguins, whose personnel has remained stable over the past five years, includes the gifted trombonist Annie Whitehead whose piquant interjections added some desperately needed spice. Barbara Bolte's plangent cor anglais also provided rich sounds in an impoverished landscape. The crowd seemed almost unanimously won over as lugubrious red, orange, and green lights bathed and dissolved.

n At St George's Church, Bristol, tonight (tickets: 0171-765 5243)

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