For more than 25 years, Carl suffered from substance abuse issues, stemming from his experiences growing up during the Troubles in Belfast. But the Fratton resident finds ‘true happiness’ when he joins the group in filling the church with music. But it’s not the sound of an organ and hymns – it is a 40-strong choir singing nothing but classic ska songs.
According to founder Steph Langan, Portsmouth may well have the only ska choir in the country. She says: ‘I’ve never come across another choir like it, and we’ve been inundated with messages from people asking for us to set up a ska choir in their area.’ Ska is a mixture of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. Steph, who runs the charity Tonic Music For Mental Health, had had the idea for a ska choir ‘for quite a while’.
As a former mental health social worker in Portsmouth and a longtime mod and ska music fan, Tonic provides an outlet for both her passions, supporting hundreds of people with mental health problems through music therapy. And it was thanks to donations from The Specialized Project and a £4,000 donation from The Specials’ frontman and Tonic patron Terry Hall that her idea for the choir became a reality in April this year.
The group is run by Leonie Tremain, a freelance vocalist, who admits the choir was ‘a bit of an experiment.’ She says: ‘We didn’t know how many people would come at the beginning. We started with 14 at our first session – now we have up to 40 coming. ‘There are lots of choirs out there, but there are not many choirs that do one type of music. ‘We have some really die-hard ska fans who come along to sing their favourite songs – and they would not be able to do that at other groups.’
The group is open to anyone regardless of their favourite musical genre or the state of their mental health. Steph says: ‘The whole ethos of making our workshops available to everyone is about breaking down stereotypes.’ Carl agrees: ‘We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. ‘Before I joined the choir, would I hang around with the people in the group? Probably not. ‘But the issues you might have get left at the door – you can just enjoy the singing and being with people who want to support you.’ The group is a chance for people with and without ongoing mental health issues to come together and enjoy making music in a ‘safe space,’ according to one choir member. Jasmine Page, a car sales rep from Gosport, has been singing and performing since she was ‘tiny,’ and decided to join the choir so she had a creative outlet to help manage her depression and anxiety. The 25-year-old says: ‘It’s really brought me out of my shell after my depression became worse earlier this year. ‘When you come to the group, the main question is, do you want to sing?’ Liv George says the choir has helped her trust people again, after a ‘nasty’ crime badly damaged her mental health. She says: ‘After the crime, I suffered a breakdown. I did not trust anyone in the world. ‘I lost so much trust in people. ‘But the choir helps you build up that trust again.’
Liv and the others are also part of the group’s private and very active Facebook page, providing another safe space for members to discuss everything from ska bands to their own need for support tackling mental health problems. Since their debut gig at the Wedgewood Rooms in June, the group has performed at a number of venues across the area, with their most high profile performance to date seeing them appear at this year’s Victorious Festival on the Beats and Swing stage.
Sarah Glass, who works for the Ministry of Defence, says the group feels they are ‘destroying stigmas’ every time they perform. She adds: ‘It’s encouraged me to be more open about my mental health outside of the group. ‘I have had Tonic beer mats at work and people would take notice and go, “oh, someone is being honest about their mental health”. ‘My biggest passion is being open about it, being as open about mental health as a broken arm or any other medical problem. ‘And here in the group, it’s okay to not be okay.’
But the group as a musical project is doing more than okay. The choir will be heading to Mayfield Studios, in Down End Road, Portsmouth, to record an EP of ska song covers in October. Steph says: ‘We have big plans, and it’s all very exciting.