- The Washington Times - Monday, February 1, 2010

CONCORD, N.H. | For drum circle devotees, the beat goes on.

The case of a young New Hampshire woman who contracted a rare form of anthrax at a drum circle in December has done little to deter fans of the gatherings, which range from informal outdoor jam sessions to professionally run presentations in corporate conference rooms. Some focus on the music of specific cultures, while others promote spirituality, healing or a sense of community.

“I would never give it up,” said Lois Emond, a registered nurse from Hooksett who drums as part of a women’s chorus group. “I’ve been drumming for over 25 years and nothing’s ever happened.”

The Dec. 4 drum circle held at a campus ministry center in Durham was a monthly event advertised as “Good food! Fun music! Excellent company!” About 60 people — most of them University of New Hampshire students — ate a pasta dinner then cleared the tables in the center’s great room to participate in drumming games, music and dancing.

The woman who later became ill wasn’t drumming that night. Instead, she was the first one to get up and dance, said Julie Corey, a drum circle facilitator hired to lead the session.

“I remember thanking her for that at the end of the night, because when she got up to dance, it inspired the other students,” Ms. Corey said. “I know she was having a great time. We all were.”

The woman became ill a few days later. By Christmas, doctors had diagnosed gastrointestinal anthrax, a rare form of the potentially fatal bacterial disease. She is no longer in critical condition and has been strong enough to speak with state health officials.

Those conversations bolstered the theory that the woman likely swallowed anthrax spores propelled into the air by vigorous drumming, said Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, deputy state epidemiologist. Tests confirmed that anthrax spores found on two of the center’s drums and elsewhere in the building were the same strain that infected the woman.

Other U.S. anthrax cases have been linked to naturally occurring bacteria on animal hide that covers drums, but this case is unusual: The spores didn’t enter through the skin or lungs, but through the woman’s digestive system. Cases in New York and Connecticut involved people who made drums and had extensive exposure to the hides.

Ms. Corey, who sells drums, gives drumming lessons and leads drum circles in a variety of settings, said she doesn’t worry about anthrax infection and hopes others won’t either.

“We’re living in a fear-based society right now. We’ve got the flu and terrorism. … It’s just one more thing to shut down people’s energy systems,” she said.

“My intention is to just continue to support the positive aspects of drums and drumming.”

Though drum circles have reputations as hippie hangouts, they are becoming increasingly popular with other groups, said Jonathan Murray, president of the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild, which started with three members in 2003 and now has about 130. He said drum circles have expanded exponentially in the past decade and are used everywhere from prisons to cancer survivor support groups.

“It’s a really fun, accessible activity, and anybody can do it. If you can bring your hand down on something, you can play a drum or a percussion instrument,” he said.

In the corporate world, he said, drum circles can help illustrate the importance of communication, diversity and anticipating change. In schools, drums can promote awareness of other cultures.

“We tend to think of [music] as entertainment, but its roots go far beyond that, and its applications are much broader,” Mr. Murray said.

A drum circle Ms. Corey recently organized to raise money for earthquake victims in Haiti attracted about 50 people, including Ms. Emond, who said she had worried that the anthrax case would keep people away from the event. The diverse crowd included a bearded man banging a tambourine on his knee and a 4-year-old girl twirling around the room with a teddy bear tucked under her arm.

Ms. Corey later taught the group a Haitian drum rhythm, carefully explaining the different parts for shakers, bells and drums. At times, she resembled an orchestra conductor, gesturing to one section of drummers to increase their volume or tempo.

Mark Colby, 50, of Brentwood, said the experience was more than he had expected.

“You just kind of feel your soul open up,” he said, characterizing the intense drumming as both tiring and energizing.

Paula MacLeod of Hampton said she was left feeling more connected to the world. Like Ms. Colby, she dismissed fears of anthrax.

“People can get hit by a bus,” she said. “Joggers are out jogging and die of a heart attack. It’s just life,” she said.

The Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood is the pastor at United Campus Ministry, where the Dec. 4 drum circle took place. He wasn’t drumming that night, but one of the drums that tested positive for anthrax was one he often used. Even so, he wasn’t alarmed.

“It’s the kind of thing that comes through your mind, and you let it go,” he said.

“I don’t want to stop drumming. It’s a wonderful thing.”

But he has canceled a scheduled appearance at a United Church of Christ conference where he had planned to give a workshop on how to organize a drum circle, partly because he has a family wedding to attend but also because of the anthrax scare.

“I look forward to the day, though, when I can drum again and also to leading some circles at some point in the future,” he said.

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