This is Sister Mary Ignatius Davies turntable! It is in the collection at the EMP Museum in Seattle, donated by Sister Iggy herself. Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, also known as Sister Ignatius or Sister Iggy, was crucial to mentoring, educating, and raising the boys at Alpha, and she single-handedly shaped the course of music with her passion and devotion to her boys. She was born in Jamaica in 1921 in Innswood, St. Catherine. She came to Kingston as a child where she attended Mico Elementary School and then became a student at the Alpha Academy, which was the girls’ section of the institution. Sister Ignatius became a member of the Sisters of Mercy, or a nun, shortly after her graduation from school since she felt a calling to their way of life and she started serving at the Alpha Boys School in 1939.
Sister Iggy, once described by Pierre Perrone, a reporter at The Independent, as “bird-like” because of her diminutive stature, had a great love for music. It was because of her passion for all kinds of music that the band program prospered. The band program at Alpha Boys School had long been established back in 1892 as a drum and fife corps, and then bolstered in 1908 when a Roman Catholic bishop in Jamaica donated a number of brass instruments to the school. The same year, Walter S. Harrison became a drill sergeant at the school, appointed by the Jamaican Defense Force, and he even served as the inaugural bandmaster for one year but continued on as drill sergeant through the mid-1960s. As a result, there was a strong connection between Alpha and the military and after graduation from Alpha, boys frequently took positions in the West Indian Regiment which became the Jamaican Military Band after independence. Music taught during these times was solely classical. But under the leadership of Sister Ignatius, the band program grew since she saw the opportunities in music for her boys after they left Alpha. The band program also grew in Sister Ignatius’s years because music was her passion.
It is quite a sight to imagine a petite nun in her full habit, spinning records at a DJ’s turntables, music pumping from the huge speakers for the boys who danced to the hits, but that’s exactly what Sister Ignatius did on many occasions at Alpha Boys School to show the boys the varieties of music they could play in the clubs to earn a living. “She build a sound system, we call it Mutt and Jeff. The reason for that, the people who used to play the music, one man was very tall, the other one is very short, so we call it Mutt and Jeff,” says Sparrow Martin, bandmaster at Alpha and former student. Sister Ignatius bought her sound system from Mutt and Jeff who were sound system operators, modern day DJs. Davy attended Alpha Boys School and returned to emcee events. With the blessing of Sister Iggy, Davy had the Alpha boys at the woodshop create his cabinets and his friend, Leighton Geoff, created the electrical components of the amplification system from parts and knowledge Geoff gained in his employment at Wonards.
After Davy decided in 1964 to leave the life of the sound system behind to spend more time with his wife and their eleven children, he sold his entire set, equipment and music, to Sister Ignatius who added the records to her already-large collection. Sister Ignatius had hundreds of 78 and 45 records in her collection—everything from classical music to speeches by Malcolm X. This collection was built from not only Davy’s additions, but Sister Ignatius would regularly send her students, such as Floyd Lloyd Seivright, to purchase records from local record shops, giving him money for the acquisition and a list of her selections. Sister Ignatius recognized the potential of the music for her boys. Of the music that would soon develop in Jamaica and take over the world, largely the result of the talent at Alpha Boys School, Sister Ignatius once said, “I knew it was not going to stay in Jamaica only.”
Sparrow Martin recalls his days as a student when they all listened to her tunes. “So she would come on Saturdays and she would have a whole lot of record, you name it, classical, jazz record, pop record, all kind, Latin, American, European music, Cuban music, and mento music, and she would say, ‘Okay today we are going to listen to classical music,’ and she would take out Beethoven, Bach, and she says, especially to the band boys, ‘Listen to your classical music.’ Then she’d say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play jazz for you today,’ and she’d play jazz music. Then she’d play Cuban music. Now we don’t speak Spanish but she would take Spanish music from Cuba and she’d say, ‘Listen to the drums, listen to the bass, listen to how they play saxophone.’ She would sit down with you so you have the interest,” says Martin. And Sister Ignatius even took up her instrument from time to time. Vocalist Owen Grey says, “Our teacher, Sister Ignatius, she was a musician herself because she could play the saxophone, she could play the flute, and she was very strict.”
Read more about Sister Iggy and her impact on the life of Don Drummond in Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist. For more information, click the “Ska Books” link above.