Alpha Boys’ School: “The birthplace of the reggae sound”. /Billboard Magazine
Founded by local philanthropist, Jessie Ripoll, the Alpha Boys’ Cottage was established in 1884 as a home for orphaned boys in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1890, the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns based in the United Kingdom, were invited by Ripoll to assist her in caring for the boys and eventually Jessie Ripoll was invited to join the order. The Sisters of Mercy have since guided what is now known internationally as Alpha Boys School, a residential vocational school for at risk boys. About 100 boys between the ages of 8 and 18 years old who have been determined to be in need of care by the family court system of Jamaica now call Alpha Boys School home.
Of the various vocations taught at Alpha Boys School, music has been the most prolific and rewarding with Alpha boys influencing the direction of jazz, ska, reggae and dancehall worldwide. From the humble beginnings of a drum and fife corps in the late 19th century, the music program could count the celebrated careers of jazzmen Oscar Clark, Jo Jo Harriot and Dizzy Reece as early success stories by the middle of the 20th century. Not long after, Alpha boys such as Don Drummond, Lester Sterling, Johnny Moore, Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks pioneered the development of Jamaica’s first indigenous pop music, ska, in the 1960s including forming the core of the seminal band, The Skatalites. Alpha alum Desmond Decker was one of Jamaica’s first vocalists to gain fame worldwide in the late 60s while roots reggae vocalist Leroy Smart and drummer Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace carried Alpha’s legacy into the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was a former Alpha boy named Winston Foster aka Yellowman who captured the attention of Jamaica and the world on his way toward earning the title ‘King of the Dancehall’.
Alpha’s world renowned music program is due in great part to the work of Sister Marie Ignatius Davies (1921- 2003) who nurtured many of Jamaica’s musical pioneers during the 50 years she worked at the school. A music fan first and foremost, it was the encouragement and example set by Sister ‘Iggy’ that ultimately, in the words of The Telegraph (UK) “helped release the spirit of one of the most musical islands in the world”. Alpha Boys School continues to provide a classical music foundation emphasizing training in traditional instrumentation with instruction in piano, percussion, wind and brass. Today, Alpha boys are able to find work in studio, hotel and touring bands as well as the respected marching bands associated with the Jamaican Defence Force.
In addition to music, boys who reside at Alpha receive training in a number of other trades including woodworking, tailoring and agriculture. Alpha’s woodworking program is both a teaching tool and an important source of income. The wood shop teaches the boys fundamentals of carpentry and the proper usage of the tools of the trade while the sales of products help to raise money for the school. Farming and agriculture is also a trade and a self-help project that supports the school’s daily operations. Every boy helps on the farm where they learn nurturing skills as well as discipline and group socialization. The fruits and vegetables produced are used for meals or can be sold for supplemental income.
Like any home, Alpha Boys School offers access to recreational, sporting and creative activities in a comprehensive effort to develop well rounded young men. Although football is the most popular sport, and the source of great rivalries between other schools in the area, basketball and cricket are not far behind. Visual arts training is available through Alpha’s relationship with the National Gallery of Jamaica and the first cohort of fifteen boys have recently been trained in photography skills thanks to their participation in the Resolution Project with the support of the Jamaican National (JN) Foundation.
Alpha Boys School is a great Jamaican success story and, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, the nation’s oldest newspaper, a “blueprint” for development. It is where for over one hundred years the Sisters of Mercy have helped thousands of young men find their passion and their place in society. Today, Alpha staff and students are working hard to become the next generation of great success stories.