The Dave Harper Music Award is the latest community initiative to be held at the multi-purpose culture hub at the bottom of High Street West which opened its doors at the end of last year, just months after the talented musician and cultural ambassador passed away.
The team at Pop Recs are passionately following through on his vision for the venue and cafe, that he founded with Frankie & the Heartstrings bandmates, which has transformed once empty listed buildings into a buzzing place alive with community creativity.
Run in conjunction with training provider Springboard, Pop Recs is now hosting the weekly Dave Harper Music Awards sessions with a group of 16-24-year-old students with a range of special educational needs and disabilities.
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It’s giving the young people access to skills and instruments they never normally would and it’s this kind of grassroots community work which Dave was most passionate about.
Sunderland musician Ian Black from band Slug is leading the sessions.
"Dave had always wanted a course like this in the community, so when Pop Recs approached me it was too good an opportunity to turn down,” explained the multi-instrumentalist. “I was good friends with Dave and I used to work as a service development manager for a call centre. When he passed away, it inspired me to do something more community based, so this is perfect.
"As a kid I would go to the Sunderland Music Workshops, with people like Barry from The Futureheads, and it’s something that really stayed with me.
"We’ve been running the course for a month now and, although it can be challenging, it’s also so rewarding: you can see their confidence building when they get behind the drums and the smiles on their faces when they don’t know you’re looking.”
The sessions are led by the students’ own taste in music and encourages them to try out a range of instruments with the aim of them having the confidence to perform at a Springboard party this summer.
Ian, who is currently writing his third album, added: “Pop Recs is a marvellous space and is exactly what Sunderland needed. It’s not just a venue, it’s so much more than that, it puts as much back into the community as it can.
"For the last five years of his life Dave must have felt like he was hitting his head off a brick wall to get Pop Recs to where it is now. That he continued to do so is so admirable – it’s just a shame he never got to see it. But it’s testament to him as a person that so many people want to carry out his vision.”
As well as the venue side of Pop Recs, which is used by a host of different culture groups and performers, the neighbouring building hosts the Pop Recs coffee shop which is open daily for brews and light bites.
Steve Reay, chief executive at Springboard, said: “I made contact with Frankie (Frankie Francis from the Heartstrings) when the new Pop Recs opened and we both had a shared vision of offering something for young people who wouldn’t normally be able to access these skills, and wouldn’t dream of trying to get into the music industry. We wanted to break the ice and show them they could and to give them a sense of ownership.
“It gives our learners a unique chance to be part of an inclusive and thriving music culture.
"Huge thanks go to Dave Harper’s friends, bandmates and family members for working with us to provide such a unique programme increasing opportunities for young people with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), without whom this would not have been possible.”
Dan Shannon, who is co-director of Pop Recs along with Michael McKnight, said: “A huge part of Pop Recs’ ambition is to engage the wider community and to contribute to an inclusive culture of music and art in the city. The opportunity to work with the SEN group at Springboard was something we jumped at.
"Our aim is to provide an environment where learners can develop their skills under the skills of Ian Black, a professional local musician (from Slug and Field Music) and give the group a sense of ownership in the venue, culminating in a summer performance at Pop Recs.”
A true powerhouse in the city, Dave Harper’s death last August, aged just 43, sparked a huge outpouring of tributes.
As well as being a talented drummer, Dave was passionate about enriching the lives of Wearsiders through culture.
Along with his bandmates, he set up the original Pop Recs in Fawcett Street in 2013 which, almost a decade later, has snowballed into the venue and culture hub which has transformed historic buildings at the bottom of High Street West, which once housed the first Binns store.
Speaking to the Echo in 2018, Dave said: “Once the door of Pop Recs opened I didn’t want to shut it again. In 10/15 years when you leave your flag in the sand, this is the level of legacy I want my son to see.”