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The following article appeared in the September 23, 2007 issue of Worcester Telegram & Gazette, a newspaper distributed in Blackstone Valley and the surrounding region of Central Massachusetts.

Beating away the blues

By Sandy Quadros Bowles EDITOR

A doundounba, one of the drums in a dunun.

GRAFTON – A bolt of lightning tore Susan West's life apart. The rolling thunder of drumbeats helped the Grafton resident heal.

Ms. West's husband, James A. West, was killed July 4, 2002, when he was struck by lightning during a family camping trip. As Ms. West came to terms with her devastating loss, she found solace in her regular drum circles, where participants gather regularly, form a circle and bang on their drums to a series of rhythms.

"It's a huge release," she said. "Playing the drum would get rid of a lot of that tension. Drumming kept me going. So much of my healing came through the drum."

Susan West plays dunun, a set of African bass drums.

Drummers clear their heads of life's clutter and focus instead on the primitive beat, Ms. West said. "When you get into that place of just playing the same thing...your muscle memory takes over," she said. This allows the mind to reach a "meditative place."

Mr. West died less than a year after Ms. West attended a four-day retreat during Memorial Day weekend 2001 and became intrigued by the all-night drumming. Fascinated by this "very interesting, very cool" activity, she and a friend met three times a week and drummed. She took workshops on the subject when she could, and was involved in a service on spiritual drumming that August at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton.

Building on this experience, she decided to form the Grafton Drum Circle. They began holding monthly meetings in September 2001 and have not missed a month since, she said.

Patrickmorgan Donovan, 10, of Whitinsville, above, pounds away during a Grafton Drum Circle session at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton's meeting house in Grafton.

About 20 to 25 people attend each circle, she said. She serves as the leader of the circle, which also encompasses the Grafton Drum Co-op. The co-op features lessons, drum-making workshops and drums for sale, according to information on the drum circle Web site.

The circle meets at 7 p.m. the second Saturday of the month at the Fellowship Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Society's Meeting House, 3 Grafton Common.

Group members have developed a circle of friendship, she said. Drumming "keeps you connected" because each person has to rely on the rhythm of others to maintain their performance, she said.

"To me, drumming is all about community and connection," she said. "There's something special about drummers. They're really good-hearted people."

The circles include a variety of drums, including djembe, ashiko and dunun, which have individual tones. "Each piece adds its own sound to the mix," she said. The "three distinct sounds can create a really nice melody."

Sometimes people bring other instruments, such as rattles, bells, gongs and even on occasion guitars, saxophones and clarinets. "You never know what it's going to be like until it's happening, which is one of the neat experiences, because it's new."

Drummers stay in touch with life's basic rhythms. "It takes you back to the basics," she said. "It takes you back to the heartbeat."

And the experience can be universal. "There's an old African saying: 'If you have a heartbeat, you can drum.' "

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