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Beaten Down

After neighbors complain, it's taps for Cheesman Park's drummers.

Beat it.
That's what the City of Denver told a group of drummers who had been gathering on summer Sundays in Cheesman Park. With their shakers, rattles, bongos and congas, the loosely organized, spiritually oriented percussionists--anywhere from five to fifty of them--tapped out rhythms they hoped would bring them closer to a higher power.

But residents of the Cheesman Park neighborhood complained that the drumming only brought them closer to madness. So one evening in late June, shortly after Westword proclaimed the Cheesman drum sessions the "Best Place to Beat It," a Denver police officer presented the drummers with a less auspicious citation: a cease and desist order.

The drummers didn't have a permit, said the order, and they were violating Denver's noise disturbance ordinance. If they didn't disband immediately, it warned, they would be hauled into jail or summoned to court, and their "equipment" would be seized as evidence.

"We've had a lot of complaints in this office," says Ed Thomas, the city council representative for the district that encompasses Cheesman Park. "Drums are a really nice idea, but twelve hours or fourteen hours a day is a bit much."

Although Thomas is adamant that he didn't use his political power to relieve himself from the thumping drums--he says he doesn't live close enough to the park to hear them--he did contact police on behalf of his constituents, and he says he'll gladly take a pounding on this one. "I'm pleased at the positive outcome," he says.

Brian Wilkerson, who describes himself as the "reflexive quasi-spiritual-leader" who guides the group toward a "constructive rhythmic experience," naturally doesn't agree that the outcome is positive.

But Wilkerson, who says he's been a musician all his life, wasn't surprised by the cease and desist order. "It's typical," he says with a hint of good-natured resignation. "If you make music in America, you get in trouble. People want to watch their TV, and if you interrupt, they have a fit. I've been thrown out and told to shut up all my life."

The drummers say they didn't try to create a disturbance. In fact, their purpose is quite the opposite: Their percussive patterns are taking them to a higher spiritual plane, Wilkerson claims.

"The drumming serves as kind of a mantra," he explains. After drummers tap out a rhythm for long enough, he says, their brains start producing a type of wave they can ride right into an altered state of consciousness.

And there are more mundane reasons why the drumming is beneficial, says group member Brian Madeson, who calls himself a "Christian-Taoist-hedonist."

"There's been a lot of healing in people's personal and emotional lives just because they were able to find a form of expression and artistic healing," he says. "We do consider ourselves artists, and it is a form of expression."

But the group probably won't fight the cease and desist order by claiming First Amendment protection for its music, as a painter recently did ("Not a Pretty Picture," July 9, 1998). "We don't want to cause a lot of trouble," Madeson says. "I'm not too excited, because I know God's looking out for us."

The drummers may move indoors to the Network Christian Coffee House at 1402 Pearl St., which on Sundays is transformed into a church populated by "an eclectic bunch of generic Christians" Wilkerson says that he helps to organize. During the winter, the group often gathers at the Mercury Cafe.

But the drummers say moving out of the park will have its drawbacks. "The more highly refined your plan is, the less tolerant you can be of ad-lib improvisational add-ons," Wilkerson says.

Passers-by were drawn to the call of the drums, and sometimes they were inspired to pick up an instrument and join in; people were always drifting in and out of the group. "There were a lot of times I drummed with strangers for one or two months before I talked to them, except for 'hello' and 'goodbye,'" Wilkerson says. "I knew them through their drumming rather than through dialogue."

But if the drummers plan to enjoy Denver's parks in the future, they'll need to find a quieter, more conventional way to communicate--with each other and with the gods.

Visit www.westword.com to read the "Best Place to Beat It" citation in the Best of Denver issue, as well as "Not a Pretty Picture.

 
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