Jack Drum Arts
Extraordinary things happen in Crook, the market town where a carnival spirit needs little excuse to burst forth.
The annual Winter Light Parade sees hundreds take to the streets in costumes reminiscent of Rio or Notting Hill, and samba drumming has become a familiar sight and sound.
Under lockdown, residents were liable to find a band at the gate, or magicians dressed as robins or even Elton Wrong, belting out Elton John numbers from a mobile mash-up of piano and dodgem car.
The source of the fun and games is Jack Drum Arts (JDA) whose base is the St Cuthbert Centre, next door to the Roman Catholic church.
It’s an arts organisation seemingly in a state of perpetual expansion.
Under the suspended segments of a giant Lambton Worm, managing director Helen Ward indicates spaces stuffed with elaborate props and costumes. Marie Kondo’s decluttering mantra doesn’t apply because it all brings joy.
JDA has been bringing joy and much else to Crook and neighbouring communities since it was established in 1986.
Through creative projects, it has helped to lift people’s spirits while offering experiences and opportunities which wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.
Helen, an artist with a background in film and photography, took the reins at JDA in 2014 when sister Julie, one of the organisation’s co-founders, left to become an MEP.
Under Helen’s direction, and with some new faces on the board, the organisation went from cooperative to community interest company.
Today a staff of 10, including Helen, endeavour to keep up the good work, whether it’s street parades or quieter, more personal stuff.
“I’d say everything we do is about community, about supporting the wellbeing of our community and individuals,” says Helen.
“Supporting their mental health and emotional resilience, tackling loneliness and isolation, making them feel they belong to something… that runs through everything we do.”
In 2009, JDA became a pioneer of social prescribing, whereby someone visiting their GP with a non-medical condition such as loneliness is directed towards a community activity.
“I have to say that Durham County Council were ahead of the game with social prescribing,” says Helen.
“We were part of a consortium with Pioneering Care Partnership and covered the whole county.”
One successful project, developed with a local photographer, was called Walking and Talking Photography.
People would meet at the Chatterbox Café in Saint John’s Chapel (Weardale), go for a ramble and take pictures.
“People would bring phones or even SLR cameras with tripods and afterwards we’d go back for bacon sandwiches,” Helen recalls.
Everyone at JDA, she says, has done mental health first aid training whose importance can’t be downplayed.
Recalling the impact of lockdown, with the company suddenly unable to work with people face-to-face, Helen recalls the choice facing the directors.
“We could make staff redundant – this was before furlough – and sit tight until it was over. Or we could roll our sleeves up and support our community.
“I remember saying that I didn’t think I could hold my head up knowing we hadn’t done anything. We weren’t key workers but there was so much we could offer.
“And it was on that basis that we set up loads of stuff online, sent out activity packs, organised doorstep gigs and made efforts to keep in touch with young people, one-to-one.
“Our reach, because of all that, increased massively. In terms of the online stuff, we had people joining us from all over the country.”
Innovations included an online ukulele group and art and craft sessions aimed at carers.
The doorstep gigs meant desperately needed work for artists and some respite for people stuck at home.
Helen remembers being moved almost to tears when a little boy who was shielding pulled back his curtains to find a samba band outside.
She admits to having enjoyed the challenges. When the winter light parade couldn’t happen in 2020, packs were sent out so people could illuminate their windows.
An online advent calendar was launched with locals invited to send in a film of someone reading a Christmas story. It proved so popular that two films were released daily.
In 2021 the parade was back, reintroducing carnival colour to the streets of Crook.
There’s no disguising Helen’s passion for the sights and sounds of Brazil, which a group from JDA visited in 2017.
“I hope my legacy will be the development of outdoor arts, particularly outdoor South American carnival arts,” she says.
Crook is now home to JDA’s samba band, Runaway Samba, and a maracatu band called Baque de Ogum. Both are involved in Nordestinos Carnival Arts, a new project for 2022.
Local people, along with professional musicians, artists and dancers, are to develop a new samba reggae bloco (carnival troupe) melding the music of North East Brazil and the North East of England.
Everyone loves drumming, insists Helen. Helping to popularise it in Crook is Jack Burton, drummer and Jack Drum executive director, who is Helen’s nephew and happens to have been born in the same year as JDA.
The energy, the rhythm, the joyful ‘can do’ spirit are all there to be tapped.