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Students Sarah Crosier, Chase Weinstein and Will Stewart practice djembe drumming at Maple Street School on Thursday. Students are exploring the instrument as well as different ways of thinking and learning. (Elizabeth A. Conkey)

MANCHESTER -- A thundering, syncopated rhythm and cues of "Bass, slap, slap! Bass, tone, slap! Tone, tone, slap! Bass, slap, slap!" reverberated throughout the halls of the Maple Street School Thursday as 13 seventh-graders beat away on authentic djembe drums.

Music Teacher Zak Hampton integrated djembe drumming into the upper-school's curriculum this year. He explained that students of all grades have been exposed to the drumming in the past, thanks to presentations by native Rutland percussionist Gary Meitrott, a student of the world-renowned Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.

According to Hampton, Meitrott made almost yearly visits to the school, exposing students to djembe drumming.

This past summer, however, Hampton learned that Meitrott would not be able to hold a workshop for the students this year.

Deciding that the program was invaluable to his students, as Hampton himself studied under Meitrott in college, he spent much of the summer absorbing even more knowledge from Meitrott before school began in September, in preparation for the newly implemented class.

"We went over all the techniques, all the styles, the different songs, and all the reasons and rhymes behind what this music is and why we care about it," Hampton said. "We talked a lot about using drumming as a ‘vehicle.' Kids are quick to think it's just about hitting a drum, but drumming is about releasing yourself from society, from culture, to feel free."

Before school began, Hampton purchased seven authentic djembe drums straight from Ghana and re-headed a handful of existing drums, which are now used (primarily) by seventh and eighth-graders during their once a week, 45-minute long classes.

Next term, fifth and sixth-graders will try their hand at djembe, according to Hampton, and younger students will have opportunities to experiment sporadically throughout the year as well.

Even though many of the students had experienced djembe drumming in the past through Meitrott's presentations, Hampton said he started the year by introducing the art in a fresh way: By having the students take turns sitting in a large, wooden conference chair.

"I said, ‘Tell me the difference between sitting in this chair and your (plastic) chair,'" Hampton said, noting that most of the students rattled off the obvious: It being made of wood, it being hard. However, Hampton said most of the students said they felt "encased" or "closed in."

Hampton used this metaphor of feeling "closed in" to explain to his students that drumming, and djembe drumming in particular, centers around a theme of freedom: Freedom of expression and freedom of the mind.

"So often in schools, it's just the same thing over and over, we're at our desks, we're reading, we're listening, we're taking more notes, and all day long kids are slouching in their chairs," Hampton said. "So, to bring them in here, on the edge of their chairs, not having to sit behind a desk, not having pen and paper, not having to take notes, not having to listen to me speak on and on about a specific topic, but to just play and let go of emotions, it helps them to step away from school for a while. Yes, we're in school, yes, we're expected to learn, but we don't always have to learn the way our society represents. There are other ways," Hampton continued. "I think bringing djembe into the curriculum drumming really ignites a fire inside the younger ones because they get excited about education, as opposed to the monotonous next class, next class, next class. It's fantastic."

Down the road, Hampton said the school plans to purchase a second round of drums as well as several auxiliary percussion drums. Doing so, Hampton said, would increase the authenticity of the music.

"The songs we play have multiple rhythms in them, so with a small group, it's more difficult to learn the songs and put them together in the best representation possible. With more drums, more students will be able to play and we can have a big group circle instead of two different, smaller groups, playing separately."

Almost four months into the school year, Hampton said he feels the drumming classes have been well received by the students. To that end, Hampton expressed that he feels fortunate to be exposing the students to such a unique style of music.

"It's just been a really tremendous experience to, with Gary's blessing, take his teachings and continue to share them with the kids here 24/7, all year-round. It's truly special."

Both the seventh and eighth-graders will perform the songs they've learned in Hampton's class during the school's winter concert on Dec. 18.

Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com or follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.