Music Is My Occupation

Jamaica 2013 226

The Jamaica Defense Force Band (JDF), or as they are commonly referred to, the military band, plays here last February at Hope Gardens in Kingston where I was fortunate enough to see them play under the direction of maestro Albert Hird. There were three bands where boys could play for a paycheck in this arena—the Jamaica Military Band, the Jamaica Regimental Band, and the Jamaica Constabulary Band. The military band was, and still is, a prestigious band where a large number of Alpha Boys gained employment after graduation. In the earliest years at Alpha, 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. Band boys trained at Alpha either went into the military bands, which provided a manageable living, or they entered into the jazz club circuit, and so orchestra leaders scouted at Alpha to fill their seats.

A number of pioneering ska artists got their start in the military band. Trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore served in the military band until he decided to leave over his refusal to cut his dreadlocks. He served for three years though and was discharged because he was “not amenable to military service,” and he then went into the club circuit. Saxophonist Lester Sterling also gained employment with the military band before he too left for a chance to play different tunes in the clubs. Sterling and Moore were in the military band at the same time.

Dr. Sandra Mayo writes in her article “A Sound Legacy” of the Alpha and military band connection. “With its emphasis on discipline, and through the development of its music programme and cadet unit, Alpha has served as a training ground for Jamaica’s military. . . . As a feeder institution to the military bands, Alpha through its music programme not only instilled values of discipline, uniformity, and respect for authority and good citizenship, but also prepared students for industrious lives.”

I asked Mr. Hird this past winter about how many of his band members were once students at Alpha. He had them demonstrate through a show of hands. About 75% of the men raised their hands and many said they were taught by Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin. We think of Alpha as an incubator for the bands that recorded, like the Skatalites and the like, and the clubs and orchestras, but the military band was also, and still is, a way that Alpha Boys went upward and onward.


Skanking with Sister Iggy!

sister ignatius turntable

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.

Ska’s Next Generation in Jamaica

addis ababba

Take a look at what the Alpha Boys Band is learning to play–Addis Ababba, written by Don Drummond! I visited the Alpha Boys School for the first time in 2011 and again this year and Band Director Sparrow Martin is always challenging his boys with music of the greats, like Don D, as well as classical, band music, jazz, and all types of music. This sweet boy, Kadeem who was 12 in 2011, had no idea that Don Drummond had written this song when I stopped by to watch him practice. When I asked him, “Do you know who wrote this?” and I told him Don Drummond, he realized that one of his own, an Alpha Boy just like him, had become a composer, a world-renown music, a national hero despite the horrors of his life.

Sparrow continues to foster his youth at Alpha. He himself was an Alpha Boy since he was 10 years old and has served as band leader since 1989. “You must play with me, mon!” he tells the boys and he leads them with his small electronic keyboard or drumsticks on the back of a metal chair. At the encouragement of the late great Lloyd Brevett, Sparrow has founded Ska Rebirth, a group of Alpha Boys who have graduated from the band and shown exceptional skill. They perform many of the Skatalites original songs. Sparrow says, “What we are doing here is not just starting a band. We are starting a movement, one which will bring back the original sound of ska from its roots and home, Alpha boys school in Kingston Jamaica, and spread it once again across the entire world. This is the real SKA Rebirth!!”

I had the pleasure of hearing them practice in February 2013–let me tell you, they are amazing! They were surprised I recognized the songs–can you imagine!? But Jamaicans many times don’t have an appreciation for the past, the foundation ska, like many others around the world do. Ska is called “granny music” or “the oldies” by Jamaican youth who prefer to listen to dancehall. But the music of the Skatalites is begin given a “rebirth” by Sparrow and others like Jamaica Music Museum Curator and Founder Herbie Miller, and Historian and Tribute to the Greats Founder Kingsley Goodison. The music of Don Drummond and the Skatalites continues on!

To hear Ska Rebirth’s killer take on a classic Skatalites tune, visit Ska Rebirth Song and like them on Facebook, Facebook Ska Rebirth