Gamelan Percussion Class @ Royal Festival Hall


In the big scheme of “random things I have done in London” then this is perhaps the randomest. I found myself last Thursday meeting up with Cathy Eastburn, a reader of the HPL  and fellow happiness and cycling enthusiast, to try a Gamelan class at the Royal Festival Hall. And so a rum punch at the Dishoom Beach Bar later, I found myself sitting behind a giant gong, following a largely incomprehensible music sheet (see below) which had numbers rather than notes, making sure I didn’t embarrass myself too much in front of a large and passionate group of Gamelan enthusiasts.

So what exactly is Gamelan? It is a sort of orchestra of percussion instruments all from Indonesia where it is from, which make a variety of sounds. There are gong things, sort of xylophone-y things, and a collection of brass bits and bobs that you hit with various sticks. Cathy is one of those wonderful people who is so passionate about Gamelan that she could inspire and motivate just about anyone to get into it, and she explained all about it to me. The things that impressed me the most, having recently seen a classical concert and remembered that school exhibitionist first violinist syndrome, is that the instruments are all ancient and beautiful and cherished, and that you play as a collective, coming to the Gamelan, rather than bringing your own instruments.
And the sound it makes? Well, it is pretty hard to explain and takes a while to get used to for a Western ear. I can best describe it as a river of sound – everyone playing different rhythms and notes but all together and forming a collective noise, a tinkling of decoration here, some bass and beats there, but all together an indescribable sound that flows and ebbs and repeats, gets faster and slows down. It is calming to listen to (Cathy gave me a CD and it has “yoga session” all over it) and to play.
Through her love of Gamelan and her belief in the benefits of playing it, Cathy (its her hiding in the gongs above) set up Good Vibrations , a charity that teaches Gamelan to prisoners and ex-prisoners and others in the community. These are not people for whom everyone is happy to help – rather controversial in fact – but anyone who watched Louis Theroux’s documentary about Miami jails the other night cannot fail to see the dangers of denying prisoners basic rights and the ability to think and act like human beings, and to work together in a community rather than fight for themselves.
And this seems to be the biggest thing that Gamelan teaches – humanity. You are part of this living, breathing, sound-making thing, you are part of a group and flow along with the sound like everyone else. It makes you calm, allows you to work with other people, teaches teamwork and creativity. Even listening to the music allows you to “bliss out” (as the lovely teacher Peter told me I should do).
So, do support Good Vibrations if you can and if you fancy trying Gamelan yourself then the Southbank Centre does community classes on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and taster lessons (just ask at reception). Also the advanced class that I sat in on and gong-ed along to is doing a gig at the bandstand at the back of the Royal Festival hall at 2pm this Sunday 29 May and on Saturday 28 May there are Gamelan “taster” sessions open to the public at 11am and 2pm (book through the box office).  There’s also a Gamelan festival at the South Bank Centre in the August bank holiday weekend.
I hope to play again soon but until then Cathy is responsible for making me long for a holiday – to Bali

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