LONDON SLANT: FLOAT TO THE NOTES OF BALI’S GAMELAN

Who needs the hassle of long haul travel when you live in London? You can just sit put and let the world come to you. I certainly felt as though I was in Bali at a concert of the island’s music and dance the other night.

London gamelan

Dancer moves to the rhythm of the Balinese gamelan.

I might have been sitting in St Luke’s church near Old Street tube, but in my mind it was years ago when I visited a temple in Bali’s central hills. Then, devotees in elaborate costumes performed rituals against a backdrop of emerald rice paddies. But what I most remember was the music. A gamelan orchestra of xylophone-like instruments and gongs played hypnotic, flowing sequences of rippling notes.

I’ve remained on red alert for gamelan music ever since.  And, I’ve discovered, you can find it all over London, from the South Bank to the Horniman Museum. I was listening to the LSO St Luke’s Community Gamelan Group. Anyone is welcome to join their Monday evening practice sessions to learn how to play. Plus they regularly put on performances to sell-out crowds.

Last Friday evening St Luke’s was joined by Lila Cita, the UK’s leading Balinese gamelan group. The two teams of musicians came together in a lively concert that powered along at a lick.

The scene was set with ranks of elaborate gold and scarlet metallophones ready to ring out when struck by shark’s tooth hammers. To either side were glittering parasols and giant gongs. On came the performers: men and women in sarongs, crimson military-style jackets and blouses, with flowers in their hair. The drums struck up and they launched into cascading, classical pieces like Golden Rain. These mixed with more challenging contemporary pieces such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine, an exciting arrangement of John Adams’ 1986 composition for a western symphony orchestra.

London gamelan

A fascinating instrument: an exotic creature with red pom-pom cymbals on its back.

Then came the dancers, in their shimmering brocades. First on was 7-year-old Maya Channing, tap-dancing for her first time in public as she elegantly enacted the misadventures of a naughty Balinese pig. Next were ceremonial dances by sinuous ladies and ferocious-looking men.

London gamelan

Men perform a martial arts dance.

By now the gamelan had drifted into the background, letting the performers take centre stage. I enjoyed its gently tumbling notes as much as the earlier, more distinctive set pieces. It brought back the temple music in Bali that was played as an accompaniment to offerings to the gods.

*Watch out for more performances coming up at St Luke’s and by Lila Cita. If you’re reading this at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the evening’s programme noted that one of the performers is running gamelan projects in UK prisons.

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