If you don’t know about the Alpha Boys School, then you’re missing out on an indispensable part of Jamaica’s musical legacy. In many ways, Alpha is a true cradle of reggae, and Sister Ignatius Davies is the school’s modest champion. Located on 44 acres at 26 South Camp Road in the heart of Kingston, the school for orphaned and at-risk boys is actually a dream factory for turning victims of negative experiences into positive young men, and using music as a legitimate weapon. Or, as one student put it, ‘Music is the magic and it’s a good place where bad boys can turn their lives around.’
On the advice of my good friend Michael Thompson – who also designed the beautifully evocative Alpha Boys School logo – I had the privilege of visiting the school this past summer and meeting Special Programming Coordinator Josh Chamberlain. Josh gave me an in-depth account of the day-to-day running of Alpha, where there is a working farm, a printer’s, a music academy, a football club, a woodworking shop, an Alpha Ware clothing line and now a new radio station. During all my time spent in Kingston over the last 10 years, and of all the things and places I’ve seen, the Alpha Boys School was by far the most exciting and enduring; it felt like I’d landed on sanctified soil.
The story of Alpha runs as deep as its Jamaican roots. Jesse Ripoll, a native Kingstonian, first opened her home to a young girl in need around 1880; some homeless boys took up residence soon after and eventually Ms Ripoll sought assistance from the Sisters of Mercy. She joined the order, and the Alpha Boys School became official. Today there are about 100 boys between the ages of 8-18, many of whom are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of mythical Alpha alums like Don Drummond and Dizzy Moore of the Skatalites, jazz giants Joe Harriott and Dizzy Reece and the first dancehall superstar Yellowman.
Alpha was also home to Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, the star of Ted Bafaloukos’ seminal film Rockers, who is still an active session drummer and recently visited his old stamping grounds for the first time since the 1970s. According to Josh, ‘He loved it and didn’t want to leave. He loved seeing the boys and the boys enjoyed talking with him. We’re all looking forward to having him back.’ At Alpha, the music is the alchemy and the adhesive, and the school has produced some of the world’s top-ranked and most respected voices that have played alongside Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear and Bob Marley. The common goal now is to keep that flame alight.
The flame keeper, beginning at the age of 17 when she first joined the Sisters of Mercy order and took up residence at Alpha until her death, was Sister Ignatius – or ‘Iggy’, as the boys called her. Like the Greek etymology of her name, which literally means ‘fiery’, Sister Ignatius not only nurtured the boys through music, she literally bought the school a sound system, amassed a record collection to rival any diehard producer’s and set up her own disco at the academy on Saturday nights. They say her favourite tune was Don Drummond’s Eastern Standard Time, and many Alpha alums have expressed deep gratitude to Sister Ignatius for her pioneering vision and tireless conviction. She was a force of inspiration and absolution who was as turned on by the music as she was tuned in to her faith. It’s unfortunate that since her passing in 2003, she has not received official recognition such as an Order of Merit from the Jamaican government. Even so, her legacy as the spirited mother and spiritual paragon of Alpha is still very much alive.
With the recent launch of its own radio station alphaboysschoolradio.com, Alpha can now actively celebrate its history by broadcasting music from the incomparable alumni of the Alpha Boys School, including jazz, reggae, ska and rock steady all-stars whose catalogues are featured on the radio’s programming schedule. ‘It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week online, with a mobile app to come,’ Josh explained.
Hailing from the US, Josh worked in radio and music production before relocating to Jamaica to pursue graduate studies at the University of the West Indies. He met several industry veterans along the route, including Michael Wadleigh, the Academy Award-winning director of the documentary film Woodstock. Said Josh, ‘Michael established a non-profit which created radio projects in communities of need. Alpha is one of those places, with an amazing musical legacy, so it turned out to be a perfect fit.’ The equipment and expertise for the radio station have been donated by Michael’s non-profit organisation, Gritty, and its radio station WXGR will provide broadcast studio equipment, social-media platforms, online distribution and training for the students. Citing ‘maximum respect for Alpha’s musical legacy and current mission, the donation will establish an important worldwide promotional and fundraising platform for the school,’ said Michael. ‘The students will provide on-air talent as well as learn skills in engineering and production, and the station will help sustain and improve the educational services of the Alpha Boys School.’ Alpha may be ‘a small school in a small city on a small island,’ according to Sister Susan Frazier, the Alpha Boys School director, ‘but the radio station will be a powerful platform to share Jamaican culture with the world.’
According to Josh, the young Alpharians are already very engaged in recording the introductions to certain segments with deeper involvement to follow, while their bandleader and illustrious Alpha alum Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin is working with current band members on original music that you will hear on Alpha Boys School Radio first. ‘So you wake up in the morning with some jazz, you work your way to rock steady and by the evening, you’re listening to reggae,’ said Josh. ‘This is their time to shine, and the boys are born naturals. It’s just all Alpha, all the time.’