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Sister Ignatius' musical legacy lives on

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dean Fraser

Dedicated 64 years of uninterrupted service to Alpha Boys'

Whenever the name Alpha Boys' School is mentioned, another name that will inevitably enter the conversation is Sister Mary Ignatius Davies. Affectionately known as Sister Ignatius, the name has become almost synonymous with the institution, and for valid reasons, too.

Many know her as the shining beacon that illuminated the path of many Jamaican musical greats like Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Lennie Hibbert, Dean Frazer, Lester Sterling, Johnny Moore, Tony Green, Leroy Smart, Yellow Man, Tony Gregory, and many others, while they were students at the school.

Situated at 26 South Camp Road in east Kingston, the institution originally acted as a risk-eliminator and repository for underprivileged and homeless boys, teaching them vocational skills, music being the main focus.

However, in the midst of all the euphoria concerning Alpha - and Sister Ignatius, in particular - there exists many untold stories about this lady and her heroics that have made her a once-in-a-lifetime heroine.

Mother to hundreds, musicologist, sound system owner and operator, disc jock, record collector, historian, and multi-sport coach are credentials that one would not normally associate with a Sister of Mercy, but the credentials held firm with her, and in the process, attracted hundreds of little boys to her.

DESIRE TO SERVE

But what could have driven such an attractive 17-year-old beauty, fresh out of Alpha Academy high school, to invest in a career that would seem drab and unexciting to other girls? The answer may, perhaps, be summed up in one word: service.

A desire to serve has always been a burning issue with her, ever since she was a child. Service, which had been feigned by many Jamaican organisations entrusted with the task, was unequivocally demonstrated by Sister Iggy. So when she was given the news in 1939 that she would be sent to The Alpha Boys' Home, nothing could be more welcoming.

Answering the call, she graciously and excitingly accepted her position as a Sister of Mercy. Immediately, she became a favourite with the boys, with her tomboyish actions and her social propinquity.

To be surrounded by dozens of boys would seem a daunting situation for many 17-year-olds, but for Sister Ignatius, it was an opportunity to teach them games, children songs, and to have general interaction. Many lives were transformed with the advent of Sister Ignatius.

Her keen ear for music was always one of her main attributes, and she soon got closer to action by mingling with the boys in the Alpha Boys' Band, which became an integral part of the institution and a tower of strength for Jamaica's popular music ever since it was established in 1892, twelve years after the school started.

One of the first to identify potential greatness, Sister Ignatius literally coached, inspired, and guided would-be stalwarts like Dizzy Reese, Wilton Gaynair, Joe Harriott, Tommy McCook, and Don Drummond, who all went on to achieve greatness.

Sparrow Martin, the present bandmaster and past student who arrived almost on the heels of Don Drummond's departure in 1950, revealed to me in an April 2014 interview some gripping stories about Sister's involvement with Alpha's music.

INTEGRAL PART OF BAND

He said: "Sister Ignatius was an integral part of the band arrangements. She would sometimes sit and oversee the whole arrangements, while the seniors conducted the juniors. She was so versed, she could tell you when you're playing a wrong note. She taught us classical music as well from various countries. She also taught us about the respective dances that went along with the music, like ballroom, and she demonstrated them, too."

Rumour has it that she even played a couple of instruments.

So overwhelming was her involvement with the music that it led her into doing the unthinkable, and in the process, created history: Sister bought a sound system from two workers at the home during the late 1950s and named it 'Mutt and Jeff Hi Fi' after the names of the two workers. She was determined to get into the sound-system business and, perhaps, challenge giants like Coxsone and Duke Reid.

She would play for the boys from her personal exclusive vinyl record collection from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, while interacting on the microphone, to the delight of the boys. These sessions became so popular that they attracted music fans from neighbouring communities, who became so involved that it wasn't long before they started to find their way on to the school compound.

Sister Ignatius had to find a way to control this move. She was forced to print and distribute invitation passes to fans on a recycling basis. To get a pass could mean one having to sit out a session or two and hope he or she would be a lucky guest for the next, or a subsequent, 'Sister Sessions'.

TAKING THINGS FURTHER

According to Colby Graham, writer of the Vintage Boss magazine, Sister had to take things much further in order to satisfy the music-hungry boys and outsiders.

"I started inviting Tom the Great Sebastian and V-Rocket sound systems to play at the sessions. With that came greater excitement and problems, too. With so many people on hand, we decided to allow for a little alcohol, and even with that small amount, many people became drunk, and so I had to set aside a dormitory to which the boys would take the drunkards until they would recover. Such persons would then be banned from the compound," she said.

The sessions continued until well into the mid-70s when the sound's replacement parts became unavailable.

Sister Ignatius' exploits in coaching the boys in football, cricket, boxing, table tennis, and dominoes are well known by those who came in contact with her. It made her, perhaps, the first female multi-sport coach in history.

After 64 years of uninterrupted service, mainly at the helm of the institution, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, who claimed that Don Drummond's Eastern Standard Time was her favourite cut, passed away on February 9, 2003, but her legacy continues with the transitioning of the school from a residential home to what is now known as The Alpha Institute. This will be explored in a future article.

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