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Back from Russia, with much love

Drummer finds adulation abroad

Ayeisha Mathis's first-ever drum set, she says, was a collection of pots and pans, fortunately not already sitting on the stove . Showing little mercy on the cookware, she soon moved on to a wooden chair, beating that up, too. She graduated to breaking glasses and dismantling laundry baskets, all in service of her theory: If an object had a sound, it made music.

The little girl who heard music in everything is a young woman now. On a Saturday night early this month, after she'd started pulsating at the urging of some of the 200 or so gathered for services at New Life Restoration Temple in Dorchester, she spotted a woman gleefully stomping.

Inspired, eyes wide, Mathis broke into a virtuosic drum-smashing frenzy, managing at its end to flip her drumstick in her right hand and simultaneously crack a big smile. For some in the congregation, it was nothing new. As a toddler, Mathis would sit in her uncle's lap at church banging away at his drum set and, less than a year old, unable to walk away from it.

Two nights after the service, she was playing again, sans audience. Mathis and Berklee College of Music's Heavy Groove Ensemble were about to depart for a performance at the JazzQ Festival, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and she wanted to get in a last rehearsal. The 19-year-old knows opportunities like that don't come along everyday.

``I'm going out of the country for something that I live to do," she said before her first-ever international trip. Her godfather, Kevin Atkins, echoed her excitement . ``It's not often someone gets an opportunity to go to another country to play music. Not just another country, but another continent."

Mathis is from Dorchester, and is a recipient of the year-old Berklee Presidential Scholarship for outstanding musicians. She participated in the Berklee City Music program, which now selects 10 Boston-area students for full scholarships. City Music has mentoring and networking program s , a five-week summer course, and Saturday school. And although she just finished her first year at Berklee, Mathis comes across as something other than a freshman.

``What I really like about her is she has the maturity to know when to lay it down and when to go for it," says associate professor David Fiuczynski, musical director for the ensemble. At the school, ``p lenty of players are talented and can do all sorts of crazy things, but they don't know how to control it yet. She knows what to do in the right place."

Mathis comes from a family of accomplished musicians; an uncle plays guitar with R&B singer Brian McKnight . Her family , too, is very religious. As much praise as they give to Mathis every day, they give more to God.

``One thing the Bible teaches is that pride cometh before the fall," said Atkins, her godfather, an associate minister at Revival Time Flame of Fire Ministries in Hyde Park. ``Her spirit helps her to remain humble. If she recognizes God in all her ways, we believe he will take her places that she would never dream."

Mathis gets the most satisfaction out of playing in church.

``When the music is spiritual, to me, it's a whole other dimension," she said. ``The closer I get to God, the better my playing is."

As the ensemble worked through songs by Meshell N degeocello and original compositions by Fiuczynski, Mathis's creative prowess is obvious.

In one piece, vocalist Daniel McClain, who also arrived at Berklee through the City Music program, sang a verse that morphed into a free-style by rapper and vocalist Anjuli Stars. Mathis thought it might sound cool to have just the drums playing behind the rap. The idea was simple enough, but the duo brought the song to a crescendo, a rare moment when one of those in the ensemble impressed the whole crew.

Before the big liftoff, Mathis, who loves learning about new cultures, wondered aloud about what playing in St. Petersburg might be like. Was it true what her uncle said, that in other countries people treat musicians like royalty and beg for autographs? She turned to saxophonist Nikolay Moiseenko , a native of Moscow, who seemed unsure what kind of answer to give.

Mathis would soon find out on her own: it was true.

``It was crazy," said Mathis, back in town last week after the band opened the July 22 festival before a crowd of 1,000 with a set of jazz, funk, rock, and R&B. The performers, she said, were besieged by music-lovers seeking autographs.

``It was very humbling," she said, ``but yet exciting to see that people look up to you because of something that you enjoy doing. To them it was phenomenal. It was like the most exciting thing they had seen in their lives."

Darren Sands can be reached at

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