[In Memory of Sten Roer Andersen (1948-2013)]

Connecting Across the Ocean: Chok Rock and The Baltic Street Band

By Peter Jampel

The idea of promoting an international exchange of concert performances between Denmark and New York City had been in the discussion stage for a few years prior to the Chok Rock concert tour of 1997. Sten Roer formed this rock band at the Aarhus Psychiatric Hospital to promote the use of music therapy performance with musicians who have serious mental health issues. My work with the Baltic Street Band of South Beach Psychiatric Center was moving in a similar path – playing at first from within our psychiatric facility – to playing out to broader mainstream cultural venues. it seemed like the timing was right to approach our hospitals about setting up a reciprocal home and away exchange of concerts. We aimed at crossing not only the borders between music therapy and performance but to cross the ocean as well.

Sten got funded by his hospital and gained approval for the trip with relative ease. He brought along a camera crew to document the trip. Performance venues were set up in Brooklyn, Paterson, New Jersey, and Staten Island. The connections that this tour fostered proved to be enduring. Members of both bands got to know each other well enough that personal correspondences between certain individuals continued for 10 years afterwards.

Funding for a return trip came from a local Catholic religious order in 1998. When the plan was presented to my hospital’s administration, they rejected the plan out of concern they said, for the possible psychiatric risk factors presented by going abroad. It seemed that the idea was too out-of-the-box for even this, the most progressive community mental health center in the New York State system. The reaction by members of the band ranged from shock to disappointment to anger. I remember our lead singer, an original and the most senior band member, stating that she felt like the hospital was treating us like children. As if we could not be let out of sight to handle such challenges. She talked about this decision ruefully for years afterwards. She passed away three years ago.

Ten years later in 2007, Sten led the Chok Rock Band for a second U.S. tour. Although a good number of the original people in both bands had moved on, there were still several key musicians who had been part of both concert tours. Memories were made and renewed as the two bands played a series of concerts separately and together. I remember one particular jam session prior to a joint band performance at the monthly Baltic Street cabaret that stood out both for its musicality and camaraderie. The linkage between these two groups was re-established.

I went to Denmark as Sten’s guest in 2011. The first day I arrived, the band was waiting for me in Sten’s backyard. As we were having dinner together that evening, I was struck by how easily they socialized, staff and clients. The therapeutic boundaries did not seem to be visible or even to matter. Sten had long told me of how they travelled on the road together throughout Europe, shared meals, had adventures, and even went out drinking sometimes. I appreciated their closeness which felt familiar to me from my own experiences. Yet seeing Sten and his colleagues together like this, how easily they sat around in comfort having a barbecue, was really extraordinary to witness. They were all friends.

The next day he was Sten the administrator, head of the social work department, all business, taking me through his morning routine at the hospital in Aarhus. Meetings were run with efficiency. Introductions and all courtesies were extended to me. Music therapy was part of the operations on each psychiatric unit I visited. Many of the patients greeted him personally. He knew each person’s history and with some, had known them for a long time.

A couple of days later, a trio of the Chok Rock Band gave an intimate performance in the hospital’s own restaurant cabaret setting. Sten played on a white baby grand piano with both Anna, a young blond client on tenor sax and Ulrich on vocals, a bipolar medical student who stuttered when not singing. Staff and patients served the meal efficiently and quietly while the trio showed another musical side with this set of pop tunes being played in this café style setting.

The next day back up to full strength, Chok Rock gave a full-throated set of rock n’ roll to a large house in the hospital’s main auditorium. This performance received a raucous reception. I donned a pair of dark eyeshades, played rhythm guitar and moved choreographically in the set’s finale. Sten was at his high voltage best dressed in black and showing some big time keyboard chops. Anna played a throaty saxophone while Ulrich pumped out some incredible vocal energy that brought the crowd out of their seats.

The following day, still riding high from the previous day’s concert, Sten and I talked with his administration about developing a recording studio program at the hospital. They expressed much interest and enthusiasm about this direction which seemed like a natural progression of the work that was already taking place. Discussions continued after I returned home. Plans for a return visit were in the planning stages for further consultations.

When I heard of Sten’s sudden illness and passing it never occurred to me that his work would not continue. Chok Rock had endured changes throughout the years. New musicians standing alongside earlier generations infused the band with both maturity and youth. Much like Sten himself. His passing brought to mind the story he had told to me about his former tenor sax player Mons, who had played at Sten’s own mother’s funeral and how he Sten, had played keyboards at Mon’s funeral service a few years later. He told this story with deep emotion. Music had transcended the origins of the relationship that he had with Mons and now simply it just existed as part of the connection that they had shared together. This is how I remember Sten, music as just part of our connection.