The reputation of the Catholic Order of the Sisters of Mercy is about 200 years of good deeds in some of the most underprivileged areas of the world. Less well known, and more bizarre, is that this order of nuns is also partly responsible for the birth of reggae music.
The sisters had been working in Kingston, Jamaica, for 12 years when they founded the Alpha Boys’ School in 1892. Its purpose was to house and educate “wayward boys,” most of them from backgrounds of dire poverty.
With instruments donated by a benefactor, a drum and fife corps was set up, which as the years passed became a martial brass band. By the mid-20th century, the connection with military music was still a constant, but the Alpha Boys’ bandmasters were increasingly influenced by swing and jazz.
“Without the school, there just wouldn’t have been the blossoming of talent on the island in the key period of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Laurence Cane-Honeysett, a music consultant to reggae label Trojan Records, who has compiled the album “Alpha Boys’ School: Music in Education 1910-2006.” “When the Jamaican music industry took off, it was totally dependent on those who studied there.”
A quartet of Alpha alumni — Tommy McCook, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Lester Sterling and the celebrated trombonist Don Drummond — were founder members of the Skatalites and, as such, co-creators of Jamaica’s first indigenous pop music. Reggae eventually would bloom from these roots at Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s hugely influential Studio One — all built on horn sections featuring Alpharians.
Another old boy, Winston “Sparrow” Martin, has been the school’s bandleader for the past 18 years, having also worked with artists from Otis Redding to Bob Marley. He attributes the sound of Mr. Marley’s original ‘60s versions of “Stir It Up” and “One Love” to ex-Alpha musicians.
Mr. Martin well recalls life at the school in the ‘50s. “We worked six days a week,” he said. “Some boys were on the morning shift, some on the evening shift. Those on the morning shift would go to band practice in the evening, and those on the evening shift would go to band practice in the morning.”
Despite the strict discipline, the school’s musical reputation was such that trumpeter Mr. Moore faked tantrums just so his parents would be forced to send him there.
There were, of course, times when the children weren’t so willing to buckle down to work. “I was one of the boys who used to try to escape practice,” Mr. Martin said with a laugh. “There was a tree they used to have by the name of the monkey puzzle tree, and I climbed up this tree, hid up this tree.
“Rain was falling when Sister Ignatius found me and said: ‘Come out the tree, you naughty little sparrow. What will your mother do if you stay there and drown?’ From that day until now, that name is mine — ‘sparrow.’”
Sister Mary Ignatius Davies perhaps best encapsulates the spirit of the school. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1939 at age 18 and remained at Alpha until her death in 2003, but it was her devotion to the music program for which she is remembered. Hard as it is to imagine, this nun also ran sound-system dances on weekends, where she would spin records from her vast collection.
“Sister Ignatius preferred secular music to anything,” said Sister Susan Frazier, the school’s current director. “She was really a blues fan and loved jazz music.
“In the early days in Jamaica, whenever there was any significant event such as a hurricane or earthquake, a 45-rpm record would immediately be cut about it. Iggy, as she was affectionately known, would send out a couple of boys to buy these records. She had an expansive collection, which eventually went to the Seattle music museum.”
Mr. Drummond’s 1964 number “Eastern Standard Time” was Sister Ignatius’ favorite piece of music — and a key moment in the development of the Skatalites. As the Alpha Boys’ School album runs in chronological order, it’s possible to trace the astonishing musical impact of Mr. Drummond and his fellow Skatalites.
Proceedings open with ‘50s British jazz recordings by Alpharians such as Joe Harriott and Dizzy Reece, but as the school’s graduates develop their sound, such music gives way to something far rootsier and uniquely Jamaican.
It seems that nuns — and a boys’ brass band — inadvertently helped release the spirit of one of the most musical islands in the world.