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The Bostonist (March 23, 2009)

Review: Nettle at Slosberg Music Center, 3/21

The Music Unites Us World Music Series has been operating for a solid half decade at Brandeis University. The series' underlying mission of connecting global cultures through sonic textures may have finally met its defining moment with a Saturday evening performance by Nettle. Making their U.S. debut in the Slosberg Music Center, the rag-tag team of musicians from different parts of the globe made a stunning and startling mark for the series. With Jace Clayton (aka renowned producer DJ/rupture) acting as impromptu ringleader, the quartet performed a tight set that combined Moroccan composition, Western-classical strings, Americana folk, hip-hop breaks, electronic beats, and a scant bit of noise into a mind-bending set.

The night of Nettle began at the Rose Art Museum, where professor Wayne Marshall treated the concert early birds to a talk entitled "Nettles, Neighbors, and Nu World Music." With the infamous fate of the Rose serving as the backdrop, Marshall gave a deftly-constructed and thoughtful pronouncement on art and music in the "nu" world. (Marshall used the word "nu" to separate the current globalized culture from the old school of thought where "new world" pertains to this hemisphere.) Pointing out the connections and distinctions that music allows us to recognize, Marshall asked that the audience appreciate the combinations of disparate sounds in Nettles music as they are performed. Marshall noted the sounds may be different, maybe even harsh; but, as one of the sub-titles for Nettle's three-day residency at Brandeis reads "music unites us, gets under our skin," perhaps this friction is what people need in order to collaborate while keeping their individuality. The brilliant talk ended rather bittersweet; although Marshall is a popular professor and a key organizer behind Nettle's first U.S. appearance, his future at Brandeis remains unclear due to a hiring freeze at the university. (You can go to the Save Wayne Campaign site to read more about the petition to hire Marshall as a full time professor.)

Half an hour later in Slosberg, Marshall introduced Nettle to a near-capacity crowd. Though the group formed in Barcelona, each musician found themselves in Spain as a foreigner; today, the members no longer all live in the same country, making Nettle performances even harder to come by. Although original cellist Jen Jones was absent, Nettle was fully-represented to the tenth degree. Along with DJ/rupture seated front and center behind a massive table of samplers, laptops, and assorted knobs, violinist/banjo-plucker Abdelhak Rahal, singer/guembri-picker Khalid Bennaji, and sit-in cellist Brent Arnold were joined by percussionist Grey Filastine and video-artist Daniel Perlin. Once everything got under way, the house lights came down, and the artists grabbed their seats and instruments, it was as if these musicians had never once been apart.

The theme of music getting under ones skin certainly provided to be an excellent indicator for the evening. Beginning with a soft, string-led ditty, the performance and sonic iconography of the band really began to kick into gear once DJ/rupture dropped a beat. Though /rupture's beat schemes provided a solid backbone for the cultural sound collage, at times his electronic-enmeshed tunes overpowered the other performers. For the most part, the group made a solid groove out of unbelievably distinct and different sounds; all it took was to focus on one instrument for a second to notice the geographical disparities between each instrumental performance. However, each sound came together into one distinct, disjointed, but ultimately powerful and potent piece. The beats danced on Bostonist's ribcage, the perfectly-timed video images grabbed Bostonist's brain, and the strings of all kinds tugged at Bostonist's heart. Near the end of the performance, one song touched Bostonist in particular and proved to be a definitive moment for the band. Although the song isn't originally by Nettle, Moroccan group Nass el Ghiwane's "Mamhamouni" proved to be quite haunting in its beautiful execution. As all the musicians sat in synch and each aural element was audible and enmeshed with another, Bennaji's delicate voice seemed to reach out and shake the audience. Although the lyrics were in Arabic, Bennaji's vocal performance could easily be felt by every person seated in Slosberg, delivering the notion that music does indeed unite people, and get under their skin to boot.

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