View a slideshow of the Alpha Boys School
Today's Global Hit takes us to school...in Kingston, Jamaica. This is a Global Hit, so you know there's going to be some music. But the students at the Alpha Boys School learn more than Dancehall Theory and Advanced Reggae. The World's Marco Werman explains.
In a country often called "the loudest island in the world," some people are louder than others. This is the sound of Jamaica today. The music is called dancehall. Usually it's a rapper backed by massive beats, supplied by a DJ on a turntable.
DUNKLEY: Everything is computer, you know what I mean.
That's Errol Dunkley, one of Jamaica's great singers from the 1960s. I asked him what happened to the Jamaica's live instrumental tradition.
DUNKLEY: Back in the day, we have like seven musicians making a rhythm track, all playing at the same time. Nowadays, it's not like that. One musician a-playin alla da instruments. Cause of the computer thing. And I think that's where we lost the true value of our Jamaican music.
SPARROW: You can't dwell on the past. Computer is in. Everything is in.
That's another veteran musician named Winston "Sparrow" Martin. He played percussion on Bob Marley's big hit "Stir It Up." Today Sparrow teaches music to young aspiring musicians.
Sparrow Martin could have chosen a less challenging place to teach. Sparrow came back to teach in the place where he discovered music. It's an orphanage -- and reform school of sorts -- in the center of Kingston.
The Alpha Boys School was founded by nuns in the 19th century. In the mid-1950s, Sister Mary Ignatius made the Alpha school band a place where the orphans could find some structure in their chaotic lives.
Sister Mary was a big influence on Sparrow Martin. But also on Dizzy Moore and Don Drummond of the Skatalites, both former Alpha boys. And on the late singer Desmond Dekker and Yellowman, the first dancehall superstar.
Sister Mary Ignatius died in 2003. But the Alpha musical dream factory that is her legacy is now being watched over by her former student, Sparrow Martin.
MARTIN: I have something to give. Not money. But love. I have that to give. And I am glad that today I got the privilege to go back to Alpha to teach. Of the one-hundred fifty some-odd boys at Alpha, about 25 are in the band.
All the boys at Alpha get an education, and vocational training. Some learn printing and woodwork. And others, like these boys cleaning the greenhouse, learn gardening. Sparrow Martin knows firsthand the change Alpha makes in these boys' lives.
MARTIN: I went to Alpha when I was about 8 years of age. My father was a man who used to strap me very hard. I used to misbehave myself. I used to love to fight. So we went to the court, juvenile court they used to call it. And my mother said best thing to do was to put me at a school. So my mother and my father took me to Alpha Boys School.
And today, life for boys in Jamaica is far rougher. Andrew Bailey is 16 and the drummer in the Alpha school band. He's been at Alpha for three years.
BAILEY: My father couldn't really manage me. He used to beat me, you know. Police got involved. So they take me and my sister.
If you're a boy in Jamaica these days, luck is not on your side. Richard Foran is director of the Alpha Boys School.
FORAN: I think today's boys have been exposed far more to violence. they've been exposed far more to sexual abuse, neglect,, different forms of abuse in a way that is more traumatic to them I think. Before, boys were neglected, but I think the exposure to violence on the streets and what's happening in Jamaican society today has left more trauma in some ways. And their response to discipline, the response to structural programs is quite different.
WERMAN: How does it differ?
FORAN: Well they have far less respect for authority.
Many of the boys at Alpha have been without structure for so long, they seem to relish it once they get it. And some of them have found that same structure after they graduate. This is the military band of the Jamaican Defense Forces. When I went to Up Camp Park in Kingston, the headquarters for the Jamaican military, I met six men in the band who graduated from Alpha. Warrant Officer First Class Shaun Hird is one of them.
HIRD: When I left Alpha, I knew what I wanted. Music. So I decided that, why not join the army. The army pays you to learn, you know. To get a trade, to send you to anywhere in the world with whatever the trade requires you to do.
Warrant Officer Hird has made the most of the Jamaican army's music program. He's studied music at the Sandhurst military academy in England, and received top honors there. Today, he's the bandmaster of the Jamaican army band.
Playing in the army band for elites may not be what Alpha boys thought of when they dreamed of becoming music stars back in school. Still, many from Alpha are living the dream. Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace graduated from Alpha in the sixties.
After Alpha, Horsemouth became the drummer for Burning Spear, and later starred in the cult reggae movie "Rockers." He confesses to being a trouble-maker when he attended Alpha. But today he harbors a lot of respect for the Catholic sisters who taught him music and discipline.
WALLACE: I was like uncontrollable. My mom couldn't control me, I didn't have a dad, yeah, but Alpha boys school teach me a lot of things. I'm proud to be telling you all this. I grew up at Alpha Boys School with the Catholics, ya mon, rastafari, blessed.
The heyday of Alpha's music program was in the 60s and 70s. These days if you wander around the school grounds in the afternoon, you're more likely to see students playing dominoes than practicing scales. But the school does continue to turn boys on to music.
Channeil Christian for example. He just graduated from Alpha this year. He's so advanced on trumpet that for the past year, he's been taking classes at a nearby school for the performing arts. Alpha Boys School has shown Channeil Christian -- and a lot of boys over the years -- that on the loudest island in the world, music can give them the voice they never had.
Here's Channeil, playing his own composition he calls "conscious Feeling." Even artists in Jamaica who didn't go to Alpha know what Alpha means to the boys there. R&B singer Errol Dunkley summed it up best.
DUNKLEY: As you know music is a magic, and it's good that bad boys can turn their life around.
For The World, I'm Marco Werman, Kingston, Jamaica.