Robert Maycock on classical music

It isn't so long ago that the only classical or traditional music of Asia that you could hear at all easily in Britain came from the Indian sub-continent. That has all changed in a cascade of Chinese operas and Japanese drummers and even musicians from Vietnam. But Laos? If you have spent the last few days in Hastings or Morecambe Bay you may be one up on the rest of us, because the tour that has called in on these resorts and reaches the Purcell Room tonight (8.00pm) is claiming to present the first group of Laotian musicians to perform in the UK.

As with other south east Asian countries, war and intrigue in the late 20th century have caused havoc to the social structures that supported music, and France has become a focus of activity in exile. The members of Molam Lao (right) have lived and worked there for the best part of two decades. They came from the south of the country and include the former personal musician to the last king of Laos. The music they have brought includes a form of improvised singing like a duel, which would carry on all night at a festive occasion. Men and women take it in turns to challenge the opposition and out-do them in rhyming skill, poetic flair and musical elaboration.

They are accompanied by a bamboo mouth organ called the khen which also features in instrumental groups. This is the source of the characteristic rhythms and melodic shapes that give the music its special sound and spirit.

8pm tonight, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, SE1 (071-928 8800) See Classical, Central