Playing to the beat of a different drummer

Marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, and more kinds of drums than you can count form the musical basis of Nexus, U of T’s Ensemble in Residence. From ’20s-style jazz to West African folkloric music to contemporary Japanese popular songs, this percussion group plays it all.

“Each group member has a story of how he first got into percussion music,” explains Bob Becker, who co-founded Nexus in 1971. “Back in the 1950s, when I was growing up in Allentown, PA, there were pockets of percussion activity—particularly marimba—all around the U.S. […] This was mainly due to a musician named Clair Musser, who popularized marimba music throughout North America. In the 1940s, you could hear full orchestras of marimbas, even one hundred at a time, playing classical orchestral music.”

Members of these groups ultimately went back to their hometowns and taught up-and-comers like Becker how to play percussion instruments. Becker later played the snare drum in school bands, then went on to study at the Eastman School of Music. At this point, he started becoming interested in music from many different world cultures where percussion instruments have a strong presence, which isn’t generally the case in the Western classical tradition.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the influence of the church, which did not really favour the use of percussion instruments,” Becker comments. “They only came into common use in the 19th century, when orchestras began seeking to imitate the sound of armies.”

The 1960s brought big changes not only to music, but to North American culture on the whole. “Air travel and recordings made different kinds of music more accessible to everyone,” Becker recounts. “Fine musicians from around the world started touring North America. People started realizing how deep these traditions were. They began to understand that Western music is not the only kind that matters.”
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Becker wanted to learn more about Indian, Indonesian, and West African music after finishing his undergraduate studies, leading him to pursue graduate work in Wesleyan University’s world music program. He hoped to travel to India upon finishing, but life led him to Toronto instead.

“By this time Nexus was already four years old and was centered in Toronto: two of our founding members were with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and another, Russel Hartenberger—now head of the U of T Department of Music—was already teaching percussion there.”

Becker began teaching at York, but continued to work with Nexus. “The group’s name means ‘connection,’” he states. “There were connections among all of us—we’d studied with the same teachers and become friends. We also had a shared interest in jazz and improvisation. Even though everyone in the group had a traditional classical background, we all wanted to pursue music from a different direction.”

For many years the Nexus style has become increasingly eclectic. “A lot of music has been composed for us, and everyone in the group is a composer, so we’re never lacking in repertoire,” Becker explains.

The group performs many concerts in the area, the next of which will take place this Saturday at the Glenn Gould Studio. The show will be a tribute to group member Robin Engelmann, who, due to vision problems, has decided to resign from the ensemble. What can concert attendees expect?

“Each of the group members has his own special interests,” says Becker. “Robin was principal percussionist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, so he has a deep understanding of the classical repertoire, but he’s also very interested in Japanese music.”

Throughout many years Nexus has collaborated with the Japanese musician Toru Takemitsu, who composes music for Japanese films. Many percussion versions of Takemitsu’s songs will be included as part of the show. Other pieces to be performed include a John Cage piece from the 1940s featuring a grand piano, a Robin Engelmann original featuring a Trinidadian steel pan, and “Ancient Military Aires,” which is based on various 18th-century military drumbeats.

Nexus plays the Glenn Gould Studio on Saturday, March 20. Tickets are $10 for students. For more information, visit

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