Jamaica: The Alpha Boys
A legendary music school lives on
BY Marco Werman
February 05, 2009
Marco Werman is a Senior Producer with Public Radio International's The World, covering world music. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Werman got his start in radio twenty years ago while reporting in Burkina Faso, West Africa, for the BBC World Service, where he later worked as a producer. And more recently, Werman has reported a number of stories for FRONTLINE/World, including the 2007 Emmy winner Libya: Out of the Shadow.
As a music writer, Jamaica has always been one of the places I felt I had to visit. I love reggae, rocksteady, and ska. And who doesn't love Bob Marley? But I didn't want my love of the music to be the sole reason to visit the island, like those rock fans that traipse blindly past the gravestones of France's cultural greats in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris just to pray at the place Jim Morrison is buried. I wanted to find a story that spoke to Jamaica's musical wealth -- past, present and future -- while still describing what it means to live on the island today.
The Alpha Old Boys, as they're known, regard themselves as part of an exclusive fraternity that extends from Jamaica to England and the U.S.
Then, five years ago, someone from one of the big Jamaican recording companies told me about the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. He said the nun who had turned Alpha into a musical dream factory in the 1950s and 60s, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, had passed away. The record company was trying to raise awareness and funds to ensure Alpha's legendary music program lived on.
As I started to dig, I found that Alpha began in the late 19th century as an orphanage. With social upheaval in post-colonial Jamaica, Alpha evolved into something of a reform school. Sister Mary, or "Iggy" as many of the boys knew her, 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. Soon, the school was graduating artists who would go on to become the stars of the glory days of Jamaican recorded music.
Many of those stars are now gone themselves, but quite a few are still leading successful musical careers. These Alpha Old Boys, as they're known, regard themselves as part of an exclusive fraternity that extends from Jamaica to England and the U.S. With Sister Mary gone, though, I wondered what had become of the Alpha Boys School in Kingston? That's what I went to Jamaica to find out.
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Winston Graham - Boston, massachusetts
I am an Alpha Old Boy.I am glad and hope I am not the last one to stumble on this website.I too benefited greatly from being at Alpha for twelve years of my early life. Iam also a musician trained at Alpha Boys 'School.I look forward to hearing from all my friends and Alumni.I will help Alpha in anyway to further their music program.
leslie cothrell - fairfax, va
Very good story god bless.
Jennifer Arezzo - Ashburn, VA
The article brought to light the influence that Jamaican music has had on the world and the new generation of musicians that have been given the opportunity to escape a troubled life thanks to the Alpha School for Boys in Kingston. Jamaica is known as the "loudest island in the
world," and Kingston is the source of much of the music produced in Jamaica. During the 1940's and 1950's as jazz became popular in the United States and Jamaicans, who previously led a rural lifestyle, came into the
cities to enjoy music and newly found prosperity after WWII, a lifelong passion for music was revitalized. This spurred the popularization of mento music, ska, reggae, dub, and rap in Jamaica and abroad.
Jamaican music is heavily influenced by West African culture. When the English settled the Jamaica and brought West Africans to the island via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade they also brought the West African culture. In Jamaica during the years of the plantation culture, unlike in other regions of the Americas, there were many slave uprisings, many of which were successful. During these uprisings, many maroon communities of escaped slaves formed. In these communities, the slaves were able to hold onto many African cultural elements such as music and religion. The language of patois (a mixture of African and English language) has also been preserved in Jamaican society through these maroon societies. The preservation of African culture combined with the blending of American music gave Jamaicans their own style of music that has influenced pop culture around the world.
Because Jamaica is plagued with its share of social problems, it is such a great opportunity that the Alpha School for Boys is providing. Not only is the institution helping troubled boys get an education and become disciplined, it is providing them with an opportunity that they would not have outside of the school. The formal music education and access to instruments that the Alpha School for Boys provides ensures that the talent of these boys will be recognized and they will be given the chance to share it with the world.
Wonderful story. As a Jamaican I am proud. High crime rates in the early 2000s were saddening my heart, especially for the youth who had to survive in some of the tumoil of the garrisons; Alpha Boys school is a pathway of hope from that situation. I'm just surprised that the place is not ram packed, maybe because of funding. I am honored to see musicians giving back to our community because of their love for Jamaica, that stirs my heart towards servitude. I didn't expect to find any social entrepreneurship in Jam. found on PBS, so I am encouraged. Thank you for your purposeful heart. Bless
Chadwick Stafford-Ellis - Kingston, Jamaica
I admire the journalist he did a good job reporting about our music and Alpha boy's school. I am a young R&B artist myself, not the reggae fan but this video had touched me to write more reggae music ..I am not from the inner city actually i don't have a problem with it but seeing this video ..it encouraged me to go there and pursue a music career there and to learn about the hard life
Silver Spring, MD
What did you find out Marcus?
What a wonderful story about the Alpha Boys School. It lets you know that music is such a positive influence on the soul. And is an effective way to communicate through to young minds and seeing the true effect for myself that it has on the world. It means that the gods were right. Music is truly an universal language for all people. Peace to Frontline, Jamaica and the music world.
carl moxie - bronx, ny
The lotus is a flower that grows from the swamp and takes sustenance from its environment, however it lives 'high above' the swamp (its environment). The Alpha School Boys, over the years, have risen above adversity to develop and share their talents to the world. From each adversity there is a seed of equivalent benefit. One Love, Marco and good luck.www.wakeupradio.net
Eric Beaumont - Milwaukee, WI
Brilliant -- this captures the feel of Alpha and contemporary Kingston. It's so good to see Channeil excelling and to see Mr. Martin's work bear fruit with the junior boys. One correction: it's Noel 'Skully' Sims, not Noel 'Sims' Skully.
Pelham, New York
I'm new to your website and I must say so far, so good. It's more than good, it's a great source of information. My father attended the Alpha Boys School and subsequently spent 30 years in the Military Band, so that story was really refreshing. So many good stories.
Excellent program, I pass Alpha Boys home everyday on my day to work and knew it was a good institution but I had no idea how it has transformed so many lives and the history behind the school. Thank you for educating me.
AVIS GRAHAM-COLLINS - SCARBOROUGH, CANADA
I am passing this on to my two cousins who attended Alpha Boys school and became excellent musicians from the training they received. We are glad to see that credit has been given to the hard work and dedication by Sister 'Iggy.'
Penny Williams - Toronto, Canada
As an alumna of Alpha Academy, the girls high school, I'm very happy to see the hidden gem of the Boys' School's effect on the music world finally come to light. Alpha needs our assistance right now if they are to survive and continue to help the underprivileged children of Jamaica. If you are a grad, please step up to the plate and help your alma mater with a donation of your ideas, time and/or dollars! Thank you.
Andrew Lincoln - Chicago, IL
Absolutely inspiring. Brilliant story and production. One only needs to visit Jamaica to know how important a pathway to success is for the youth there. By illuminating the existence of Alpha, Marco has provided these kids with more than PR, he has embedded their story in the hearts and minds of the world. I hope Marco has an opportunity to tell the world more about Jamaica - its turbulent past and bright future.
Jamaica lover - Bronx, NY
I love this story. Thank you so much for your beautiful documentary.
Howie Crawford - San Francisco, CA
Fantastic story! Marco, thanks for sharing your love and appreciation of Jamaican music and showing how music can be such a positive force in people's lives. It's reassuring to know the tradition is alive and well and being passed on from generation to generation.Thank you Alpha Boys School for keeping the music alive!
Dwight Jones - wilmington, de
Marco, as an avid listener to the world I especially enjoy the daily geo quiz and global hit of the show and the stories that follows. As a native jamaican, i was immpressed with the alpha boys school story. I was aware of previous music talents of apha but not to this extent. Please continue to highlight Jamaican Music and it's global influence. "one love"
It was very nice to see that Alpha is still doing good things for kids who need a leg up in life. I use to live a stone through away from Alpha and there was a Socca field right next to Alpha where i use to play every evening. Thanks Werman -- your story about Alpha realy touched me.
Marcus Boyd - Imperial Beach, CA
This program made me realize I need to donate to my local station to support TheWorld.org... Thank you for your wonderful work in bringing the unseen and underappreciated works of the world, to the world.