Celebrate Jamaica: The Alpha Boys’ School
Growing up I didn’t know much about The Alpha Boys’ School. I do remember Grandma making mention of it once as a music video by Leroy Smart played on the television. She mentioned that he went to the school and that the school was known both for its music training and for the success its students had in music careers. I filed it away, not thinking much about it except that I was glad that having grown up in a children’s home he was successful and OK. Now years later I have a better (if, perhaps, still incomplete) appreciation for the stunning musical legacy of The Alpha Boys’ School located at 26 South Camp Road, close to where I grew up.
Don Drummond blowing his trombone on the classic “Eastern Standard Time.”
The Alpha Boys’ School was founded in 1880 by Jamaican nun Justina Ripall. What little money she had, she used to buy 43 acres on South Camp Road to open a school for needy children. But, it is Sister Mary Ignatius (Davis) who’s most closely associated with Alpha Boys’ name and success with music and musicians. And, while music may be what its most well known for, Alpha Boys’ emphasized a broad range of skills. Students were encouraged to “learn a trade” and were able to choose from a wide range of offerings: agriculture, horticulture, shoemaking, tailoring, plumbing, welding, and book-binding. PBS’ Marc Werman notes that Sister Ignatius (affectionately called “Iggy”) “amped up the music program, and found that discipline could be fostered if the kids got music lessons and participated in the Alpha’s marching band.” Consider what we now know (0r, rather, widely acknowledge) about the importance of music in young people’s lives and what Sister Iggy did and what others continue to do is priceless. The boys may not have come from a traditional home but they were not any less loved, cared for, encouraged. By the time of Sister Ignatius’ death at 93 in 2003, she’d helped to shape the lives of countless musicians – from singers to engineers to producers to session musicians – and, therefore, had a profound impact on Jamaican history. (You may read more about how much she was loved here, written by some of the boys who she helped mold into men.)
The so-called glory days of Jamaican music (the 50s and 60s) are filled with names that got their start at Alpha Boys’ School: Desmond Dekker, Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Johnny Moore, and Lestor Sterling (i.e. a good chunk of that band called The Skatalites), Eddie Thornton (trumpeteer), Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (drummer). Later on there was Leroy Smart and King Yellowman. This list of people is not exhaustive but among them are names that I frequently hear my Dad and his friends talk about, men whose music they enjoyed as young men growing up in Kingston town. I think that it’s no stretch to say that Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae would not be the same had it not been for The Alpha Boys’ School. What I love most of all is that the focus was on learning music, not becoming a star. Talent was coaxed out and nurtured and though not all its graduates became stars or a household name many, of the school’s graduates found their place in Jamaican music, and those that did seemed to settle into their roles and do well. Being a musician or an artist doesn’t just mean being a DJ, singer, producer, or singjay. Music takes much more than that and, frankly, the folks playing the instruments or mixing a record matter equally to the person behind the mic. Sometimes it’s their skill that makes the person who we all know sound as good as s/he does.
Alpha is also known for its band (founded in 1892) and music continues to live on at the school under the tutelage of past students, who also continue to support the school and speak fondly of it and their time there. Here is a vid of the band in 2006; their teacher is Sparrow Martin, also an alum of Alpha.
I strongly recommend that you watch the piece from PBS’ Werman about The Alpha Boys’ school. You may find it here. It’s only 15 minutes but gives good, basic insight into the legacy and importance of the school.