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Drummer's Delight 

Chaos with a downbeat shakes the souls of the faithful in a tiny white church in tidy white Hudson. Several dozen celebrants pound a multicultural melange of drums--djembes, dumbeks, bongos, congas, and ashikos. They're loud enough to wake the dead--at least until 11 p.m., when the city's noise ordinance kicks in.

Each solstice and equinox for the past fifteen years, the nondenominational, nonprofit Spiritual Life Society has celebrated the change of seasons by rolling away the pews at the Church on the Green, a New England-style building with a quaint steeple, for open-door drumming and dancing. For some, it's a night of free-form spiritual expression, the new-age equivalent of rolling in the aisles for Jesus. For others, it's throbbing noise.

"This is how I pray," says Jeff Jarvis, a bearded Kent resident in denim overalls and a bandanna, who's been coming to the celebrations for six years. Jarvis is playing the ashiko, a cone-shaped African drum with a goatskin head. His model was made by a friend from one of the church pews, left over from a renovation in the 1970s. When the Spiritual Life Society bought the church back then, it put the pews on rollers to make the space more versatile. "When I come here, it's like bringing the drum home," Jarvis says.

Lately, Jarvis, a thirtyish post-Deadhead, has noticed a slight change in the crowd's demographics, from one hemp-braceleted faction to another. "Now it's people who follow Phish," he says. "People have nicer drums now, too."

The drums are mostly West African and Latin, with a few Native American hoop drums, cowbells, and claves. Once in a while, some free thinker brings a flute or recorder to add melodic musings to the mix--but on a good night, the volume of the drums is deafening, and most of the other unamplified instruments are pointless. Spontaneous improvised rhythm without leadership can create a thunderously disorganized rumble, but a few good drummers among the tub-thumping masses can pull it all together and make time pop.

The revelers not drumming are dancing. Some of the dancers have learned the traditional ways of a specific culture, while others shake in free-form sync with the beat of the drums. Two girls in loose cotton batik skirts pull imaginary roots from imaginary soil in what appears to be a practiced harvest celebration ritual, while three kindergartners run between them in their own spontaneous celebration.

As the night wears on, the rhythmic spirit ebbs and flows with mysterious unpredictability. "When the drumming clicks, it's magical, because the drummers trade energy," Jarvis says. If the players have something to add, they add it, and if not, they sit back. Two-hour Neil Peart drum solos are frowned upon: "When people cooperate, it's very spiritual," he says. "But when people go solo and get off track without regard for the group, it ruins the synergy."

Besides the drum-and-dance nights, the Spiritual Life Society also hosts chanting, spiritual dance, and yoga classes at the church. "We offer a level of spirituality without religion," says leader Larry Terkel. "Even if people come just because they've heard about the drumming, they find out the spiritual side." Ultimately, a sense of community keeps them coming back, he says.

At halftime, Terkel leads a meditation, asking the crowd of forty to lie on the floor and pay attention to the little things--breath, heartbeat, the turn of the planets. The lights dim, and somebody giggles.

"We are moving through space at 15,000 miles an hour," he says in a soothing voice, taking his charges on a dizzying virtual journey through the cosmos. "We are spinning at a hundred miles an hour. Relax and enjoy the ride."

--Michael Gill

The Spiritual Life Society hosts free summer solstice drumming and dancing Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at the Church on the Green in downtown Hudson, at the intersection of Routes 91 and 303. For more information, call 330-650-1216.

More by Michael Gill

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