The boys were gathered yesterday morning on a concrete slab behind the Barry Farms Recreation Center in Southeast Washington, honing their act for an afternoon talent show at the fourth annual "Say No to Drugs" youth festival there.

"Hit it, Boe!" shouted 10-year-old Lamont Johnson. Boe May, sitting on a plastic drum with pieces of a mop handle in his hands, began laying down a heavy back beat on a battered trash can. "Keep on, Boe," Lamont said.

Soon, the five or six self-taught percussionists of Solar Sonics are pounding out fresh rhythms. The number of band members fluctuates depending on how many instruments -- tin cans, a pair of old bongos set on crutches and overturned plaster buckets -- are available.

While staff members of Unfoldment Inc., the drug prevention group that sponsored the festival, and volunteers finished setting up a stage adjacent to the recreation center on Sumner Road just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, the Solar Sonics rapper, Anthony Nelson, 11, sang: "This rhyme's a-bout co-caine and crack, let me tell you taking drugs ain't where it's at."

Nelson said the band formed just last week and he made up his song to fit the theme of the festival. "It's about drugs, to encourage people not to use drugs."

It is the same message that Baker Morten has shared with schoolchildren since starting Unfoldment 10 years ago in the neglected neighborhood of Barry Farms.

As bands and rappers practiced or awaited their shots at the $500 first prize offered at the talent show, Morten noted that "you can get more done from music than anything else."

"The word 'unfoldment' means growth and development," Morten said. "We're just trying to {help the neighborhood children} improve their self-confidence."

In 30 years of covering courts as a reporter, Morten said he saw too many youngsters waste their lives by resorting to crime. To combat that, he devised Unfoldment, which offers drug and alcohol education, a reading tutorial and other programs in a small house at Sumner and Wade roads SE.

But, he said, "You can't even talk about crime, you can't even talk about reading without talking about the drug problem." Morten chose the Barry Farms area, where he said many families are struggling or on welfare, because "this neighborhood, well, it's considered the bottom of the world, {but} I think we have some of the best kids in the world."

At yesterday's festival, Antonio Prince, a ninth grader at Douglass Junior High School, said his band decided to join Morten's organization earlier this year at the suggestion of another band member.

Drugs, he said, are easily had in the area. "All you have to do is go around on the street . . . coke, anything. It's one of the reasons I joined Unfoldment. I've been in trouble before," said Prince.

The problem for youths in the area, he said, is often not drug abuse, but the efforts of dealers to get youths to sell their products. Some youngsters, Prince said, "try to get out but the money seems good to them . . . It's fast money and a whole lot of money, but I can't get with that."

John Whitfield, 17, who with the other members of Skin and Bones awaited the group's chance to perform its Christian rhymes, agreed. "Sometimes {antidrug education} doesn't really do that much. What they need to do is stop the big guys who come in and get the little guys to sell it."

Morten acknowledges that of the 5,000 youths who have come through Unfoldment in 10 years "we've lost some." But success stories abound.

Wearing a jacket he received last week from a 22-year-old man who went through Unfoldment's reading program, Morten said, "I'm sure he would have been stationed in Lorton. Now he's stationed in Japan {with the Navy and} teaching Japanese children in English."