On The Filtering Of World Music: A Nexus Percussion Performance

by Thomas Brett

Formed in 1971, Nexus is a Toronto-based percussion ensemble that has been making hard to classify music using a massive array of instruments for over three decades. Their repertoire spans experimental free improvisation, West African and North Indian drumming, contemporary classical pieces (including commissioned works from the likes of Toru Takemitsu and Steve Reich), original compositions by the group’s members, and George Hamilton Green’s early 20th-century ragtime music for xylophone and marimbas. Nexus’s debut concert, by the way, was entirely improvised.

While extensively trained in classical music, the members of Nexus also came of musical age at a time of profound change in North American “serious” or “classical” musical culture–a time when it was beginning to open up to influences from vernacular traditions, instruments, and sounds from far outside the walls of music conservatories. Specifically, it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that so-called “world music” traditions from Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Indonesia, and Japan first became entrenched in a few American colleges and universities, largely thanks to pioneering graduate degree programs in ethnomusicology (the cultural study of music making) at schools such as UCLA and Wesleyan. So if you were a student at say, Wesleyan in the early 1970s, you could take lessons with master performers and learn North and South Indian classical music, traditional drumming pieces from Ghana, and play in a Javanese gamelan percussion orchestra. (Actually, you can still do this today.) Several of Nexus’s members did just that. And as they were inspired by their studies of global percussion traditions and their curiosity about these traditions’ complex rhythmic designs, the group also gradually amassed a huge collection of percussion instruments from all over the world, helping to expand and re-define the very notion of what a “classical” percussionist does in the first place. In a way then, the history of Nexus is in part a story of how “world music” traditions–from Africa, from India, from Indonesia, among many other places–have influenced and shaped the practices of Western percussionists and percussion music in general. Once upon a time, this kind of cultural encounter would have been called fusion, but the work of Nexus reminds us that all music is world music, blendable and blending together in one big sonic stew.

To illustrate, consider Nexus’s hour-long, non-stop set at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City earlier this week. They began with Fra Fra, their adaptation of a sequence of Dagomba rhythms from Northern Ghana played on talking drums, gun-gon (a buzzing bass drum), shakers, and a whistle. Then it was off to Zimbabwe for a rendition of a traditional Shona mbira (thumb piano) piece called Nhemamusasa, accompanied by African iron bell, gourd shaker, and a bass marimbula. The mbira piece faded into a long stretch of free improvisation, with each musician playing a small collection of instruments ranging from gongs, cymbals, and shakers to mouth organs, woodblocks, and bird whistles. It was during the bird call moments especially that Nexus’s subtly deep musicianship reminded the audience of the startling things that can happen when we listen and allow ourselves to be lead past technique and exotica and novelty towards micro sounds, quiet sounds, overlapping and uncertain sounds in close dialogue with one another that seem to surprise even the performers themselves as they’re making them. That’s a musical lesson I really want to remember.

The free improvisation and bird soundscapes segued into a rendition of Steve Reich’s early minimalist classic, Piano Phase (1967) played not on pianos but on custom-made wooden akadinda-style xylophones. For me, this was a particularly significant moment in the set as it was a beautiful example of Western and non-western musical traditions colliding and resonating together. On the one hand, we have a piece by Reich, one of the most significant of living classical music composers, who has made a career around repetition-heavy music. In his writings and in interviews, Reich has acknowledged the influence of West African drumming and Balinese gamelan on his composing. Indeed, in Reich’s repeating and hypnotic “phasing” processes you can hear rhythmic relationships, interlocking parts, and perceptual artifacts (weird echoes, doublings and resonances) that are also found in traditions from West Africa and Indonesia. On the other hand, we have Nexus’s custom-made akadinda (one of the group’s members, Gary Kvistad, is also an accomplished instrument designer who makes Woodstock Windchimes) which is originally an indigenous percussion instrument from Uganda. In its traditional setting, the akadinda is played by several musicians whose interlocking parts allow them to play at super fast tempos. Not only that, but in akadinda music you can hear the same kinds of weird perceptual artifacts (one ethnomusicologist once called them “inherent rhythms”) that grow out of Reich’s music (which Reich once called “resultant patterns”). All this to say that even though Reich never found explicit inspiration in traditional Ugandan music, the similarities are most definitely there. And as if to literally hammer home the point, Nexus then continued Piano Phase on a set of horizontally positioned tuned wind chimes and then, changing from mallets to ping-pong paddles, on a vertical set of tuned plastic tubes to make a more . . . wonky sound. The audience could be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of Blue Man Group. But what was happening is that we were hearing a demonstration of how rhythms are ever portable from one tradition and set of instruments to another. Music may not be a universal language (or a language at all), but its structures are like DNA–easily reproduced far from their native habitats.

And finally, as the Reich on wind chimes faded, its motif was picked up on the (western) xylophone, modulated a few half steps, and with that Nexus dove into a series of frenetic yet note-perfect early 20th-century ragtime pieces from the golden age of dance bands when the xylophone was king. When they were done, the audience was on its feet, cheering for encores as if surprised and wondering: Who knew that percussion could do all this?

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Here are some YouTube clips of musics mentioned above:

“Nhemamusasa” performed on Shona mbiras:

Steve Reich’s Piano Phase:

Akadinda xylophone from Uganda:

Xylophone music composed and performed by George Hamilton Green: