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The following article appeared in the March 27, 2015 issue of the Community Advocate, an online news source for Central Massachusetts.

Drumming, chanting are sacred practices for Grafton mother

By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer

Susan West playing guitar at one of Rhythmic Heart Kirtan's events.

Grafton - For many, finding a way to seek refuge from the crazy and hectic world is a struggle. For Susan West, 49, it is found in the sanctity of drumming and chanting.

West's journey into drumming began at a Rites of Spring retreat in 2000. Here, an all-night drum circle drew her in and the experience led her to purchase her first drum - an African djembe. Workshops on drumming followed. The experience and expertise she gained flowed naturally into spiritual drumming and it was not long before West was offering a summer service on spiritual drumming at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton (UUSGU) where she is a member.

"Our first drumming workshop was so well received that the minister at the time encouraged us to start a drum circle," West said. "So after having drummed only two months, I decided to take on leading the drum circle. It began simply as a place we were learning together, but took on a life of its own over time."

In 2001, West held her first drum-building workshop, building Native frame drums with her late husband, Jim. Tragically, Jim was struck by lightning on a family camping trip in 2002, leaving behind his wife and two daughters Juliana, 5, and Abigail, 3.

The following year West started teaching drumming which, she said, was extremely healing at this time.

In 2003 she teamed up with Stan Secrest from and held her first djembe-building workshop. The experience created such a community that she was "hooked" and went on to hold 13 workshops. She has also offered children's drum-building workshops in Grafton and Sutton as part of the afterschool enrichment programs.

West is an active leader at UUSGU. She has participated in many different missions at the church: helping shape worship, offering her musical talents, fundraising, leading an Earth-based spiritual group, leading drum circles and kirtans (chanting with accompanying instruments), teaching religious education and, currently, leading a youth group.

"I love being active with the youth and helping them find a place where they can completely be themselves without the usual peer pressure, a place where they can explore and discover and serve," she said.

In 2006, while attending the first Eastern Mass. Rhythm Festival (of which she is a co-founder), West met and later fell in love with fellow drummer Steve Sherman. Unlike West, Sherman prefers to play tabla (Indian drums) in kirtan rather than djembes in drum circles.

"The kirtan experience is one of peace and ecstatic bliss," West said. "It allows us to stop thinking about our voices and just sink into the music, sink into the community all raising our voices together."

Two years ago, West took up playing the harmonium and, along with Sherman and a friend, formed the kirtan band Rhythmic Heart Kirtan.

For West, the arts of drumming and chanting are sacred.

"Music is my spirituality, it keeps me sane in a crazy busy world," she explained. "It allows me to slow down, and sink into something that keeps me in the present moment. When I am immersed in music - specifically drumming and chanting – everything else falls away and I am held in the synergistic beauty of the moment. It allows me to connect with something ancient and something future, reaching deep inside, and yet connecting with others deeply through it at the same time. It is a dance with others and with spirit."

While West’s daughters participated in drumming circles when they were younger, the girls found other interests as they grew up. Juliana, now 17 and a senior at the Mass. Academy of Math and Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, plays the piano and is interested in Civil War history - even sewing a two-piece authentic 1860s outfit for a costume ball. Abigail, now 16, is a sophomore at Grafton High School. She plays the piano and the flute and has organized a flute choir at school.

West holds a monthly drum circle the second Saturday of the month on the odd months and a kirtan on the second Saturday of the month on the even months at UUSGU.

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