18 August 2018
After the previous day’s discussion of violence in Jamaica, the third session of the Rototom Reggae University was more celebratory in focus. Author David Katz chaired a panel on the history of one of Jamaican music’s crucial institutions – the Alpha Boys School. He welcomed two famed former Alpha boys: the singer Johnny Osbourne and the trombonist Vin Gordon. Joining them were the co-authors of recent book Alpha Boys School: Cradle Of Jamaican Music, Heather Augustyn and Adam Reeves.
Prior to the talk university goers were shown Gus Berger’s documentary “Duke Vin and the birth of ska”. The 50-minute film traced the struggles and triumphs of the first sound system operators in an overtly racist Britain. It included moving informative interviews with UK legends Duke Vin, Count Suckle, Daddy Vego, and Tony Randon from Massive International (currently selling and playing records at Rototom).
Augustyn explained how Alpha was founded 1880 as a girls’ school by the Sisters of Mercy but opened to boys whose parents were unable to care for them. As well as trades including tailoring, brick-making, carpentry and printing, it had a military band that led to work at government events after graduation. The burgeoning tourist industry created a demand for club house musicians. Therefore “Music was an occupation, as the Skatalites told us” she said referencing a classic instrumental by the greatest ska ensemble.
Reeves added that before ska, Alpha produced two top jazz musicians – Joe Harriott and Dizzy Reece. Augustyn stressed the importance of Sister Ignatius “godmother of Jamaican music” who encouraged the boys to listen and play, hiring in musical director Lennie Hibbert.
Vin Gordon said Ignatius was very strict. “If she sees something good she pushes you along”. Johnny Osbourne recalled Hibbert was even more strict – stating that he originally started learning trumpet and gave up because of the teacher’s harsh methods. But he agreed that “Sister Ignatius could see the good deep inside a rude boy”.
Gordon, one of 21 children, took up tuba while secretly learning the trombone. His prowess on recordings at the Studio 1 label earned him the praise of Don Drummond, the great Alpha trombone pioneer, then incarcerated in Bellvue Mental hospital. Augustyn, who has written a biography of Drummond, called him a genius who suffered from mental health issues before they were fully understood. Drummond “brought the trombone into the spotlight” with his melancholy solos.
Finally, Katz called in surprise guest Carmen Rives from the Spanish embassy in Jamaica. She explained that thanks to donations from Rototom, Alpha is still keeping wayward boys off the streets today.