Nexus Brings African rhythms to Slee

Music lovers young and old witnessed percussion at its finest Thursday night.

Toronto ensemble Nexus visited UB for a day of instruction and performance. Members Bob Becker, William Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger and John Wyre provided several selections influenced by both traditional, ragtime and African folk persuasion, and took the audience through a journey of improvisation and innovation that spanned 31 years of music.

The standing ovation at the conclusion of the night could not have capped the night off better as the final section, "Novelty Ragtime Selections," gave the audience just enough bells, tones and beats to send them home happy.

That selection saw all members of Nexus playing the xylophone, led by Bob Becker. Becker also led in another piece, "Turning Point," this time playing piano.

"[Slee Hall] has good sound and acoustics," said student Liam Gallagher. "The instruments were neat . they weren't just banging on drums up there. The different pitches and bells (were) what made it cool."

Slee Hall was definitely in rare form Thursday, as Nexus fully utilized the sound resonance in the concert hall. One selection, "Tongues," ended the first set very well, as the five performers sat in chairs at the edge of the main stage, each with instrument in hand.

The focal instrument of the piece was the African mbira, a type of plucked idiophone instrument whose name literally means "tongues," but of metal rather than flesh. Western countries usually refer to the mbira as a "thumb piano." The selection was a rather fitting piece to close out before intermission, giving many in the audience something to discuss before the beginning of the next set.

Most of Nexus's selections were of African persuasion, two specifically from Zimbabwe and Ghana - "Tongues" and "Kobina", respectively.

"Some people wouldn't want to listen to this type of music," said Gallagher. "It's more classical, something you won't hear on the radio. It was cool."

These same selections, however, made composition major Derek Charke a bit leery.

"'Tongues' was a very reserved piece and Nexus played great," he said. "But I think these African pieces might have been in the wrong environment."

He believes tribal selections like these "should be more communal, more out in the open instead of in a place like Slee."

Charke also had the opportunity to have Nexus themselves critique and discuss his own original score, titled "Comfricatio," meaning "rubbed." This piece is played with an instrument called a super ball mallet, "basically a rubber ball on a stick," Charke said.

Nexus spoke with Charke and offer some technical advice on aspects of the music and percussion business. Although he was very grateful for their input, Charke wishes more people had been there to see it.

"It wasn't very well attended," he said.

After the concert, all members of Nexus were available for autographs and discussion. Bill Cahn, who also served as master of ceremonies for much of the night, thought they performed well.

"It was a friendly audience," he said. "We did our improvisation a little differently tonight but I thought it was a good performance."

Cahn also noted that it was the first time Nexus performed in Buffalo as a solo group, although they have performed with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on previous occasions.

In addition to many performances in the United States, the group has performed in Asia, Europe, Australia, Scandinavia and Brazil. Despite the way the group received most of their musical influence, Nexus has yet to perform in Africa.

The group has many colleagues who came to the United States in the '60s from the country of Ghana and taught classes in colleges and universities throughout the country. It was that influence, coupled with the surge of recorded African music being played and heard at that time, that brought these five men together as a group in 1971.

The members were good friends before popularity hit, as Cahn and Russell Hartenberger were friends in junior high school. They all played together in orchestras and bands together before the group officially formed and performed its first concert in May of 1971.

An LP was released four years later, Paul Horn and Nexus, and they have gone on to record over 20 albums since then with the latest, Lullaby, released last year.

Nexus has received many accolades in the space of its long career, including the Toronto Arts Award. They have also gotten critical acclaim for creating and performing the music for the Academy-Award winning film, "The Man Who Skied Down Everest."

For more information on the group and upcoming events, visit their Web site at