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Way back in the early days of Rock ‘n Roll, many popular groups were built around the vocal talents of their lead singer. Among them were Diana Ross and the Supremes, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Reparata and the Delrons, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Freddy and the Dreamers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Danny and the Juniors, Martha and the Vandellas, and Dion and the Belmonts.

Radically different types of group singing originated in India, Japan, and Tibet a few millenniums ago. In the early 1970s, the Eastern styles began to catch on in the United States, and in several other Western nations. Widely publicized by The Last Detail, a hit movie starring Jack Nicholson, the chanting fad remained popular for a year or two, and then almost completely died out.

These chanting groups were relatively fluid, generally ranging from about twenty to forty participants, and their chant sounded like the familiar aaaaaaaauuuuuu mmmmmmmmmmmmm. And then, after a deep breath another aaaaaaauuuuuu mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, and so forth for the next ten or fifteen minutes.

Like the Hindu and Buddhist chants upon which they were modeled, these too were deeply prayerful. And, if truth be told, equally monotonous. But most importantly, nearly every chanter believed that if you chanted, a miracle might occur.


How did I ever get involved with this rather strange group of people? What if I told you I met them while I was on a date?

I can remember almost nothing about the woman I was with, except her first name and that she came to New York occasionally to take care of her friend’s dog. Emily had a friend who needed to go out of town on business. And so, in exchange for taking care of her friend’s dog, she got to live in New York rent-free, while her friend did not have to put her dog in a kennel or hire a dog-walker.

Emily and I met at a party, kind of hit it off, and made a date for the next evening. She seemed perfectly normal, so I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into.

Emily was staying in an apartment in the West fifties, just a few blocks from Carnegie Hall. The doorman sent me straight up. When I rang the bell, a dog started barking. Actually, it sounded more like a yap than a real bark, so I quickly realized that the dog must be on the small side.

When the door opened, a white toy poodle rushed out into the hall, checked me out, and then ran back into the apartment. I followed him inside.

“Friendly dog,” I observed.

“Yes, Joshua is definitely a ‘people dog’. So clearly, you passed his smell test.”

Seconds later he was back with a sizable rubber bone in his mouth. He looked at me and growled, assuming I knew the drill.

He wanted to play. The game was very simple: “I’ll bet you can’t pull this bone out of my mouth.”

I made a few lame attempts, which were met with a few half-hearted growls. Then he trotted off into another room and returned with a rubber ducky.

Again, I went through the same charade, but I tried a bit harder to pull the ducky out of his mouth. He growled somewhat more fiercely, while giving me what appeared to be the canine evil eye.

When I surrendered, he trotted off, soon returning with still another rubber toy. Once again, we went at it. I tried even harder to yank the toy out of his mouth, but there was no way I could get it away from him.

When he retreated into the other room, Emily asked how hungry I was.

Well, that dog helped me work up a decent appetite.”

How rude of me! I neglected to formally introduce the two of you. His name is Joshua.”

Named after Moses’ younger brother. And the hero of the Battle of Jericho.”

Well you certainly know your bible – and your music!”

I wouldn’t go that far! But I’ll tell you: Joshua is one stubborn dog! And I’ll bet he has great leadership qualities as well.”

Emily smiled. “Do you mind if we stop off on the way to the restaurant? When I’m in New York, there’s a meeting I try to attend each evening. It will take just a few minutes.”

Are you in AA?”

She laughed. “You’ll see! We’ll be there for no more than half an hour. And as a reward for your patience, at dinner you can have an extra dessert or a complimentary beverage.”


Even back in the 1970s, real estate in Midtown Manhattan was relatively expensive. As we approached a storefront on a side street just east of 9th Avenue, we heard what sounded like a prolonged one-note chant.

On the way over, Emily had explained that we were going to a meeting of chanters, and that they had the use of a commercial real estate office for one hour every evening. The owner’s sister was a chanter. So, not having to pay rent was a very big plus.

Anyone who walked in was immediately made to feel welcome and to join in the chanting. The only question was for what or whom should that chant be.

It could be for someone who was about to undergo open heart surgery or for an end to a war. The leader, a woman named Charlotte, provided a hypothetical example

Suppose two drivers are approaching a hairpin turn from opposite directions on a country road during a heavy rainstorm. They would very likely crash into each other. So, the group would chant, hoping that their effort would somehow push both drivers to steer just a few inches to the right to avert what would otherwise have been a head-on crash.”

Would their chanting actually help avert a crash? “Well”, Charlotte suggested with a smile, “it certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

I kind of enjoyed being with the chanters, but I knew I’d never want to make it a habit. After dinner, when we returned to the apartment, Joshua was waiting for us. He had a rubber bone in his mouth.

I realized at that moment that nothing would ever happen between Emily and me. But I also had a very strange premonition that there just might be some connection between Joshua and myself. So before I left, Emily and I made plans to get together the next time she was in the City.


On my way home, I began humming:

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho

And the wall came tumblin’ down.

Did you know that these were the words of an old African-American spiritual? It had been composed by slaves during the first half of the nineteenth century, and still retains a certain popularity.

That led me to think about the power of music to inspire, and its appeal to relatively powerless people. And how the chanters had perhaps tapped into that inspiration and appeal.

If very loud music could make a city’s walls tumble down, then just imagine the power of a group of individuals engaging in a prayerful chant. I could witness those powers firsthand and become a true believer. Though bear in mind that I’m a guy who never set foot in a shul even one time after his bar mitzvah.


Emily and I had our next date three weeks later. Joshua evidently had advance word that I was coming because he met me at the door ready to do battle over his rubber bone.

This time, I decided to try a lot harder to yank the bone out of his mouth. Still, I didn’t want to risk injuring him. After all, he weighed no more than six or seven pounds.

So, I pulled and he pulled. In fact, I pulled him across the floor and he hung on to his bone for dear life. I even tentatively lifted him off the floor, but he wouldn’t give an inch.

After a couple of minutes, he walked off with the bone and returned with the rubber ducky. I lifted him a little higher this time, but still he hung on.

Then Emily asked if was ready to leave. As I let go of the toy, Joshua seemed somewhat disappointed. He looked as though he were asking, “Is that all you got?”

Again, we headed over to the chanters before we went to dinner. I was beginning to wonder why she continued to see me. Clearly, this relationship was going nowhere, but who knows what strange things motivate us.

Just before we left the chanters, Charlotte announced that just for fun, we could try something a bit different the next evening. Three members could get to ask the group to chant for something that they would not disclose. The only rule was that it could not be a bad thing such as hurting someone or robbing a bank.

I asked Emily if she would see me the next night.

Why not?” she answered.


When I arrived, Joshua and I went right at it. This time I was definitely ready for him. When he offered me the bone, I lifted my end so that we were looking each other in the eye. He growled – I’m not sure whether in anger or in admiration of my great powers.

When he came back with the rubber ducky, again I lifted him so that we were eye-to-eye and slowly spun him around. He hung on for dear life. When I set him down again, he defiantly trotted away and came back with his third toy.

He could not have guessed what I might do next. I slowly pulled him up over my head and spun around three times, and then I gently tossed him a few feet across the room. As he landed very lightly on his feet, I let out a sigh of relief.

Just then Emily came into the room. “Ready?”


When we got to the chanters, I told Charlotte that I had a secret wish.

I won’t ask you what it is, as long as it’s an appropriate wish for our group.”

I hesitated for a few seconds, and then said that I believed it was.

“Then we’re all set. Yours will be the third and final wish this evening.

After dinner, we returned to the apartment. I knew I would never see Emily
or Joshua again.

What had become apparent was that while I thought Emily was very nice, we were kind of going nowhere fast. I’m sure that I was just someone to pass time with while she was in the City. Or perhaps she thought of me as Joshua’s entertainment.

And as for me, there was clearly no future in this relationship – and not just because she lived somewhere in Pennsylvania. She was pleasant to be with, but that was about it.

I hated to admit this, but I knew I would miss Joshua more than Emily. And the chanters? Well, let me put it this way: It was an interesting experience. But come on! You have to be a little nutty to actually believe in all that mumbo jumbo.

When we got back to the apartment, Joshua didn’t greet us. But seconds later, he trotted out with the bone, dropping it on the floor right by my feet. Then he was back with the rubber ducky. And finally, the third toy.

He gave me one last look and then he was gone.


A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living

writing math and economics books.
The fourth volume of his short "Small Crimes in the Big City," 
was published in April.


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