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DC Soundclash: Alpha Boys' School and Sister Ignatius
There are many ways to travel about in Kingston, but none more evocative of a civil, less anarchic past than in an Alpha Boys’ School van helmed with solid grace by native New Zealander Sister Maria Goretti. Friendly ‘hello Sister’ refrains from any number of fellow travelers who see the Alpha emblem greet the van on all its errands.
You feel safe, yes,
but also respected, possibly even cherished. Things are not "out
of order," as the late Sister Ignatius was fond of saying. Back
at Alpha’s South Camp Road location in South Central Kingston,
the school protects itself from the outside with compound-style high
fences. Just up the road to the north is the infamous "Gun Court"
(recently euphemistically renamed to "Peace Court") and to
the immediate east is Vineyard Town, followed by the volatile and violent
Mountain View Gardens area. The occasional chicken thief sets off the
dogs in the middle of the night and the next morning a recounting of
livestock reveals the damage done. At other times an ‘old boy’
will come to the gates begging for food or money. Alpha is not alone
in experiencing the contrasts of Kingston life, but they are striking
From Alpha’s ranks of young men who learned to read and play music there came four original Skatalites members, several future emigrants to the UK who would go on to play significant roles in the modernization of the British jazz scene, and countless other hornsmen and occasional vocalists who were destined to make a name for themselves, their country, and eventually their school. Much of Alpha’s basic history has become known primarily to lovers of Jamaican music, especially to those with an ear for horn playing. Names like Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, and recently an almost resurgent Cedric Brooks – these are all at the forefront of our imaginations. But of the twenty-four Alpha alums featured on this CD (plus a recent incarnation of the Alpha Boys’ Band), you will also get an introduction to the jazz greats like Joe Harriott, an alto saxophonist who can claim musical accolades comparable or even superior to that of Drummond’s. It is interesting to note that the jazz world has left Alpha largely out of its discussions when figures like Harriot or trumpeter Dizzy Reece are mentioned.
In the end, it has been the reggae and ska community that has embraced the Alpha story and lineage the most, in the process garnering Alpha the international attention it so richly deserves. One simply cannot fail to marvel at the school’s prodigious output of talent that so consistently joined the successful ranks of the professional musical fraternity. Something seemed to be ‘in the water’ at Alpha.
My own first visit to Alpha came in early 1999. A decade-plus obsession with ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dub landed me a gig with the Experience Music Project in Seattle. They were planning an exhibit on the history of recorded music in Jamaica and I was to assist my long-time friend Dave Rosencrans in his curatorial responsibilities, which for me meant researching and establishing contacts that would assist us in finding suitable artifacts and important storylines. Off to Jamaica we went.
One could start that project in a number of places: talking to the Khouris about the world of recorded music in Jamaica before and during Federal Records, or running after Coxson Dodd or Prince Buster with flattery, in the hopes that long-held anecdotes or photographs would be on offer. We would eventually get to all of those, but starting with Alpha has made more sense over time than we fully realized even then. Alpha would give us the deepest sense of Jamaica’s boundless musicality, the essential ingredient in all that was to come from its studios during the ensuing decades
One imagines that the Alpha of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s – the period in which our featured musicians received their education at Alpha – was run essentially as it always had been: as a home for wayward boys in need of discipline, education, spiritual guidance and sanction from the hardships outside its gates.
Founded in 1880, Alpha began primarily as a reaction to the orphaned and underprivileged children of Jamaica. An association with the Sisters of Mercy only commenced a decade later in 1890 when Sisters from the Bermondsey Mercy community near London, England were invited to participate and a small group made the long and arduous trip to the West Indies to take up the task at hand. Alpha at that time consisted of two industrial schools, one for girls and one for boys. The boys were added to the Sisters of Mercy’s particular ministry, and under their care over the years Alpha developed trades to go along with basic education. Woodworking, shoemaking, plumbing, printing, tailoring, electronics, welding, agriculture, and, of course, music have all been featured skill sets that are available to young boys to learn and make their own.
The musical program at Alpha was initiated fairly early too. A walk through the Lennie Hibbert Hall pays homage to bands past, bandmasters past, star pupils past – it is part museum and part classroom. By the time that future Skatalite Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore famously finagled his way into Alpha in 1949 with false tantrums that forced his parent’s hands, the school’s musical reputation had obviously become common knowledge for some of the more precocious musical aspirants on the street!
In its reform capacity, Alpha frequently received those young children whose parents or relatives were unable to cope with their behavior. Thus a nine-year old Don Drummond was brought to Alpha by his mother. Music during these years was taught for a full day at Alpha, unlike the half-day of nowadays. For a naturally gifted child like Drummond, Alpha could not have been a more perfect setting to explore and develop his innate talents. Certainly discipline was a trademark of the Sisters’ approach with what were often times unruly or troubled young boys. Both Dizzy Moore and Tommy McCook referred to the seriousness and "stern" treatment doled out by the teacher nuns at times. But positive reinforcement, as in all great teaching scenarios, was never lacking either. This certainly came from the Sisters, and, also less obviously, through the fraternal solidarity of older boys showing the younger ones the ropes.
Trumpeter Bobby Ellis recalled Raymond Harper’s assistance to him, and likewise Dizzy Moore received such guidance from Lester Sterling. This in-house network would be a continued source of strength once the boys graduated, as one established musician would assist the others in finding gigs. Man-about-town Rico Rodriguez seems to have been a strong force during the 50’s in that regard.
And then there was the example of the bandmasters themselves, the actual teachers of music. By the time the 1930s rolled around, Alpha appeared to have set in place a regenerative system whereby past students returned to teach at Alpha, including the bandmasters. Many of the earliest bandmasters from the turn of the 20th century had in fact been musicians in Jamaica’s military regiment band – Sergeants Harrison, Knibbs, Beek, Logan. The military band has probably historically been the single largest employer of Alpha musicians upon graduation and this association continues to the present day.
When a slightly more civilian bandmaster profile emerged with the likes of George Neilson (1935) and Vincent Tulloch (as early as 1927, but through 1946), it coincided with big band swing music’s growing influence. Tulloch was a past Alpha boy who had both McCook and Gaynair as students. Current bandmaster and Alpha alum Sparrow Martin describes Tulloch as a "big band man," and it is perhaps his tenure that signals the beginning of Alpha’s incredible blossoming of musical talent, because following Tulloch came Reuben Delgado (1947-55; 1965-68) and with him the names began to flow without end: Harriott, Drummond, Wilton ‘Bogey’ Gaynair, Harold ‘Little G’ McNair, Rodriguez, Headley Bennett, Ron Wilson, Karl Bryan, Raymond Harper, Bobby Ellis, Dizzy Moore, Lester Sterling, current bandmaster Sparrow Martin and many more.
A Kingstonian by birth, Delgado was a former clarinet player in the Jamaican West Indies Regiment whose teaching foundation was built largely around classical music. To this day, you can hear the Alpha Boys Band run through their steps on Beethoven or Mozart. Part of the classical repertoire has also always included marches, a not uncommon element given the long association with colonialism and Jamaica’s military order.
Following Delgado was vibraphone player and also past Alpha boy, Lennie Hibbert (1955-63). Hibbert’s fame was considerably enhanced by being a performer in his own right, and his prowess on the vibes is immortalized on the Studio One lp ‘Creation.’ Coming to Alpha originally in 1955, Hibbert’s students included Cedric Brooks and Vin ‘Don Drummond Jr.’ Gordon. His long-standing service to Alpha and music eventually saw him awarded Jamaica’s ‘Order of Distinction’.
In assessing why so many talented musicians emerged from Alpha in a relatively short period of time, one must probably look beyond merely the quality and nature of the teaching being given. Instead, it could be a function of supply and demand, and the demand was coming from throughout the island, where past Alpha graduates were finding work playing music in various settings. At the heart of the musical explosion of recorded music in Jamaica during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was both a deep nativist musicality waiting to uncoil, and also an established tight-knit musical community. The hotel and society club’s circuit system may have been an active arm of colonial rule, but it also provided a setting for professional, big band swing and Latin music orchestras as well as well-rehearsed jazz ensembles to flourish.
Eric Deans, Sonny Bradshaw and Carlos Marlcom were all notable bandleaders who scouted for talent for their own bands. Deans and Bradshaw in particular drew upon Alpha’s young musicians, creating what at times seemed an almost de facto farm system for their bands. Without this structure in place, Drummond, for example, would not have been allowed the early graduation that the promise of a place in Eric Deans’ band called for. McCook, Harriott, and Gaynair all played with Bradshaw. Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, and again McCook were with Deans. And there were many others. What was required of young musicians was a solid musical foundation, which Alpha provided then as it does now. Talented young musicians thus had the outlets they needed to grow and develop their craft.
When Federal Records opened its doors in 1954 and locally produced music began to flourish, it was this wellspring of rehearsed and schooled musicians that walked fairly comfortably into the limelight. Senior and more skilled musicians still had to function as arrangers and organizers of sessions (Ernest Ranglin most notably), but the transition to a recording industry proved to be fairly seamless and, most importantly, filled with a palpable sense of promise and newness; Alpha graduates were at the forefront of much of this movement.
Another scout of talent who frequently chose from Alpha’s ranks was Coxson Dodd. More so than any other producer of his era, Dodd maintained close ties with Alpha, even up until his untimely death in 2004. Perhaps he was forever repaying the debt that was the Skatalites’ Alpha horns axis of McCook, Drummond, Sterling and Moore, the musicians who along with Roland Alphonso and Jackie Mittoo, essentially built Studio One with him. Or he could have been endlessly acknowledging the role played by Alpha hornsmen during Studio One’s definitive early reggae period, where players like Cedric Brooks, Bobby Ellis, David Madden, Vin Gordon and Headley Bennett all added their distinctive horn motifs and arrangements over the classic rhythms of the day. Imagine only the ominous opening horn lines of Burning Spear’s ‘Door Peep’ and you know the value of Alpha’s sons to Dodd’s own musical legacy.
Certainly this overall debt was large enough to keep him coming back, as he did on a visit in 2000 we were witness to. The Alpha band that day performed in front of Dodd and Sister Ignatius, while bandmaster Sparrow Martin led the youngsters through a storming version of ‘Rockfort Rock.’ It was an homage to a shared tradition between guest and host, with Dodd receiving his coveted ‘blessing from Sister’ by the afternoon’s end.The musical blessings from Alpha had over the years increasingly been linked with the presence of Sister Maria Ignatius Davies. Her passing on February 9, 2003, brought an end to 64 years of uninterrupted service in the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, the entire tenure of which she spent at Alpha (she joined on her 18th birthday!). As a native Jamaican, perhaps she had an advantage over some of the other nuns who were often times from overseas. It was certainly apparent when visiting Alpha that she was admired almost universally by the young men who came into contact with her, both past and present. Part of her charm was her tomboyishness – tales of playing cricket or even engaging in some boxing exercises abounded. But most notably it was her deep love and interest in music that made her a focal point of the Alpha mystique. Top of next column
Alpha Boys' School: Music In Education
Trojan 2006 (1967)
Sister Mary Ignatius Davies
Nov. 18, 1921-Feb. 9, 2003
Light of Saba: Cedric IM Brooks
Wanna help? All proceeds from Alpha's own Come Dance With
Me CD go to the school. Buy
Just cool: A group of Alpha students look sharp for the camera.
Certain facts are worth noting here. Sister Ignatius had a record collection of several hundred 45s and 78s, mostly consisting of Jamaican productions and invariably featuring a smattering of former Alpha grads on the recordings. But she could surprise too, as with an LP of Malcolm X speeches, a record she particularly prized. And then there was the dances she ran on Fridays and Saturdays, using a soundsystem she had essentially acquired from "Mutt and Jeff," a printer and a binder at Alpha who were also soundsytem operators in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
One can not easily appropriate an image of a nun laying down McCook’s "Music Is My Occupation"’ and following it up with Buster’s "Burke’s Law," but there were scribbles on a 45 sleeve to suggest she had done just that. Sometimes she would be assisted by students in her musical endeavors. Floyd Lloyd Seivright comes to mind, an Alpha alum with musical talents of his own; he would make the frequent runs to local record stores for Sister Ignatius, carrying her money and want list in his pocket. Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton would be another one who would stay very close to Sister Ignatius following his Alpha days, despite his almost permanent move to Britain where he found work in the Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames band. We accompanied Sister Ignatius on a trip to Spanishtown to visit with Tan Tan when he returned on one occasion to visit his own sister. It was a rare glimpse of an almost gleeful Sister Ignatius – old friends, essentially.
Not all her friendships were with the musical fraternity either. The famous ‘old boys’ she would refer to could be anyone who showed up to talk to her or write from afar. Many had found their way overseas, to the UK in particular. Later in life she enjoyed their hospitality as she and her longtime friend and fellow nun, Sister Magda, would travel about, hopping from one ‘old boy’ venue to the next. In this way the Alpha alumni connection remained most vividly alive. There was thus a palpable sense of loss when Sister Ignatius died. To many she was the living history of Alpha, frequently in demand in her later years by visiting news people, music fans, and, as always, all her old boys. The past was alive through her stories and also that unflappable Jamaican pacing that she adhered to.
But there were noticeable tangibles to her contributions as well. She had recognized Joe Harriott as a true talent and pointed him out to Sonny Bradshaw. It was not her musical expertise that was sought after, but more her blessings and encouragement to the youngsters around her, which in turn created positive outlooks for when opportunities made themselves available. Sister Ignatius left the Alpha compound only infrequently in her later years, but her local knowledge and connections never failed her.
To the very end, she remained the scheduler of the Alpha band’s many engagements in and around Kingston. In the truest sense of the word, she was a beacon to all who marveled at Alpha’s simple yet formidable works. One got the sense that all the Alpha musicians who later became rastafarian gained a sense of relativism through their dealings with her. Memories of sharper rebukes by the older disciplinarians at a Christian school were not forgotten, to be sure, but a Sister who can play cricket, teach a few choice moves in boxing, and then function as a soundsystem operator for an in-house dance – well, that’s a whole other matter. In Sister Ignatius they found, I believe, a fellow traveler.
The historical musical knowledge wasn’t always there at Alpha. Even Sister Ignatius lost track at times, and so we were surprised to learn that Johnny Osbourne was an Alpha grad. Perhaps this can be explained by Sister Ignatius’ special fondness for brass. It was always the horns that gave her the securest sense of Alpha’s past as continuing unabated. They all captured her imagination, these venerated names of the past, but even with her personal attachments you could tell that Drummond held a special place even for her. The elusive mystery of human genius – and that he was – was not above her callings to try and grasp and grapple with. ‘Eastern Standard Time’ is well-documented as being her favorite Drummond tune. It is one of his more buoyant compositions and you wonder if she did not secretly hope for his normal melancholy to abate behind more such efforts.
That Alpha could not always protect its sons once they left its care was a constant and painful reality. Drummond’s psychological problems were never adequately treated and he famously self-destructed with the murder of his girlfriend in 1965, which simultaneously ended the Skatalites’ and ska’s first run. And Raymond Harper, we would horrendously learn, died in obscurity, huddled over by blankets of newspapers.
But Alpha’s positive reach continues to this day. The roots music of the '70s is being reissued at record pace and on the flipside of those LPs you will see the Alpha names on the horns credits. Under current bandmaster (and longest running at 18 years) Sparrow Martin, the schooling remains indelibly linked to Alpha’s past and students of talent continue to emerge. What has changed, of course, are the waning opportunities for hornsmen; we will have to see if their days return. In the meantime, Trojan presents to you this tribute to Alpha – both its sons and its teachers – in the hope that current Alpha administrator Susan Frazer and her staff continue to overcome the struggle and move upwards and onwards.
Liner notes to the CD Alpha Boys' School: Music In Education