Stand on the hillside above Wooler, a spartan market town in the Northumbrian borderlands, on a Wednesday evening in summer and you will hear sounds more suited to the hot streets of Trinidad than these bare northern slopes. The pan yard doors are open at Glendale middle school and dozens of young musicians are drumming intently, their rhythms taken away on summer thermals.
This is the Steel Quakes, an after-school ensemble, who have perfected their art to such an extent that they play and train in Jamaica and at the Notting Hill Carnival. They are taught twice a week after school by Wendy Brown, a steel pan drummer from Whitley Bay who plays for the London band Ebony, as well as Phase II in Jamaica. Some of her students have become good enough to play with her and they go over to the West Indies for weeks at a time to train and perform. One, 15-year-old Joseph Hall, has shown such musical potential that he has also been taken on by the Sage's weekend school.
Liz Breckons, Glendale's music co-ordinator, says the steel pan pupils have created an expectation that music-making can contribute to many aspects of life, "not just a lesson you have once a week". The project has taken the community by storm; pupils play at many town events and regional festivals, their pans transported in a sheep trailer. When the Quakes performed with Ebony at the local arts centre in Berwick, Ebony's musicians set up camp in Wooler, bringing a multicultural dimension to a town that is almost 100 per cent white.
The project is part of CoMusica, one of the UK's first youth music action zones, set up in 2001, which now has its home at the Sage and which offers out-of-school-hours provision in communities where music-making opportunities are few. It's spearheaded by Katherine Zeserson, a dynamic jazz musician and singer. Schools are offered a range of programmes involving musicians singly or in groups going into schools or leading workshops at the Sage in jazz and improvisation, folk, singing, opera and setting up ceilidh bands. All programmes are targeted at Years 6 and 7 and key stages 3 and 4. "I see myself as a marriage broker, putting people and places together to help young people to be aspirational and ambitious about themselves," says Ms Zeserson.
The Sage is a precious resource to these community groups as a performance and workshop venue. The Steel Quakes play there regularly, taking its imposing facilities in their stride. They also busk in Newcastle's city centre, where they attract large crowds. They have raised thousands of pounds for the Asian tsunami appeal as well as cash to send students to Jamaica.