Ardenne High nurtures world-class musical talent
Ardenne High School was founded by American Church of God missionaries George and Nellie Olson in 1927 and the school quickly established its reputation as an epicentre for academic excellence. Over the decades, few schools in the Caribbean can make claims to Ardenne’s dazzling accomplishments. The school boasts several Jamaica and Rhodes scholars and decades of outstanding passes in the regional examinations, having been named several times as the CAPE School of the Year. Ardenne has won the School Challenge Quiz a record seven times and the school remains the only Caribbean institution to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship in the USA when a precocious Jody-Anne Maxwell became the first black student to take the cup in 1996, also becoming the first winner outside of the USA.
But Ardenne is more than book and brains. Beyond the academics, the institution has for many years fostered an impressive musical heritage that is now paying off in multiple Grammy wins for the school’s creative prodigies. A continuous outpouring of talent nurtured at Ardenne has culminated in recent Grammy wins for graduates Koffee and Stephen McGregor. Additionally, in recent years, under Principal Nadine Molloy’s leadership, the school has had other impressive achievements in the performing arts, copping the Marcus Garvey Award for Excellence in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s (JCDC) performing arts competition on several occasions. The annual Ardenne Christmas Pageant and fireworks extravaganza, which engages a staggering six hundred students at every level of production, is a contemporary Jamaican interpretation of the Christmas message through music, speech, song and dance.
“The co-curricular engagements at Ardenne are second to none”, music teacher and club facilitator Andrae Wilson told The Gleaner’s Arts & Education. “The variety of skill sets learned are more than adequate and potent in not only preparing students for the arts, but for life in general”, he reiterated.
Ardenne graduates have been enjoying success in the performing arts since the 1960s, thanks to two early important pioneers and contributors to the music programme there. One was accomplished musicologist Daphne Vidal Smith who, after teaching music at Ardenne, went on to become the founding principal at Mona Preparatory School. Ardenne benefitted, too, from the expertise of conductor, composer and Royal School of Music graduate Lloyd Hall, who also taught there. Prominent attorney Florence ‘Flo’ Darby excelled as a vocalist under the tutelage of regional music icon Noel Dexter, who moulded outstanding choirs at Ardenne for many years, and Darby was the recipient of several medals in the National Festival Competition before joining the University Singers.
“Noel Dexter taught me everything I know about music,” Darby shared with Arts and Education when the award-winning composer and UWI Choir director passed away in 2019, and Darby later became Dexter’s sounding board on his behalf for his catalogue of superlative compositions in subsequent years.
Other standouts include Joyce Britton who shone brightly in classical music in Canada, and the award-winning vocalist Esther Tyson, who later served as principal of Ardenne. Raggamuffin singjay Koffee, born Mikayla Simpson, who graduated from Ardenne in 2017, learned music theory and singing techniques as a member of the school’s choir. Principal Nadine Molloy remembers her being also a member of the school’s female football team.
“It was a pretty good team and this is where she would sing to motivate her teammates. She also spent time around the performing arts students quite a bit. I recall the then music teacher, Canigia Palmer, telling me that she was one to watch for in the future. So, I can see where she would have been influenced by the general atmosphere of immense respect for and positive portrayal of the Jamaican culture at Ardenne,” Molloy added.
Lyrics to Koffee’s Toast gives an insight into her musical journey with slices of the back history.
“One time did sit down inna class and we bored. Den Oli say do road and mi gwan wid di road. 3rd form mi say mek mi try a ting. And you know it turn out to be a fire ting. Now a pon stage wid Chronixx I a sing.”
Her breakout performance came a year after graduation at Rebel Salute 2018 (Grizzly’s Plantation Cove in St Ann) when Coco Tea introduced her as Jamaica’s next big sensation. She was an immediate standout, enthralling fans with singles Raggamuffin and Burning. The following year, she was invited back at the festival as a headline performer where she charmed fans with her growing catalogue of hit singles, including Toast, twice selected by former US President Barack Obama for his summer 2019 and 2020 playlist. Months later, Koffee was in the record books as the first Jamaican female artiste to win a Reggae Grammy Award for her debut album Rapture. Koffee’s mom, Jo-Anne Williams, recalled the ‘Grammy-winning moment’, during a recent radio interview in New York.
“I just started to scream! I was like, thank you Lord. Thank you, Jesus,” she exclaimed.
Singer, songwriter and music producer Stephen ‘Di Genius’ McGregor has also contributed to Ardenne’s legacy in the performing arts. “I never knew much about Ardenne prior to going there but it turned out to be one of the greatest decisions I could have made”, he said.
“It is one of the best schools ever. It is very welcoming. It motivates a lot of the kids to believe in what they are doing. That is probably why so many of us are successful,” he said.
In 2017, McGregor, who played in the school band prior to graduation, won four Grammy Awards for Best Latin Pop Album El Dorado (songwriter and producer); Best Reggae Album Stony Hill (songwriter and producer); Best Rap Song Controlla (songwriter and producer) Latin Grammy Award and Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Album El Dorado (songwriter and producer). In 2020, he won his 5th Grammy for Best R&B Album ‘Bigger Love’ (songwriter and producer).
“He made a great choice to attend Ardenne,” Stephen’s proud dad, global reggae icon Freddie McGregor, told The Gleaner.
The tremendous successes of Koffee and Di Genius speak loudly to the emerging role that co-curricular activities have played in the lives of students at Ardenne. In January, Koffee highlighted this view during an interview on BBC 1Xtra in England.
“Ardenne is typically known for excelling in academics, but also for supporting young talent and for helping young youths hone their skills and their creativity,” she said.
Principal Molloy agrees. “At Ardenne, we want our students to achieve the highest accomplishments academically, but, equally important, we see our students as spiritual beings who are more than just their grades,” Molloy declared. “We celebrate that with Koffee. She was born of her experiences and she carved out a unique niche for herself. She has set an example for Ardennites everywhere, regardless of where they are in their own personal journey. Equally, Brand Jamaica is reaping the benefits of another cultural creative making her mark on the world stage. It is not to be taken lightly,” Molloy indicated.
Dancehall DJ Alkaline also benefited from the co-curriculum at Ardenne. He played football before blossoming into an A list performer of distinction.
“He was the resident entertainer for the team”, Principal Molloy recalls. “You could say he was always performing as he was on almost every show at Ardenne that catered to his genre. He was also an excellent moderator for our prize giving.”
There is also drummer, keyboardist, radio disc jockey, producer, and artist Left Side, son of Lloyd Parks of We The People Band. He was a noted basketball player on the Spidey Barrett-coached winning team for several years. He performed at Ardenne in the band. There is also producer, recording and mixing engineer Mario ‘Mad Scientist’ Lawrence, the muscle behind Music Factory Studio. Lawrence has toured with Grammy-winning artiste ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, Warrior King and I Wayne, plus he has played with Ernest Ranglin, Monty Alexander, TOK, Dean Fraser and Daville. Ardenne students have made their mark on popular local television shows like ‘All Together Sing’ and ‘Digital Rising Stars’. And, looking back, there were also roots, reggae singer Hugh Mundel, who attended Ardenne during the 1970s, and radio broadcaster Errol ‘ET’ Thompson, hailed as one of Jamaica’s most influential radio personalities from 1977 to 1980. These were joined by talented student jaw-droppers Lennox Gordon (guitar) and Ian ‘Tschaikovsky’ Johnson (keyboardist), both of whom were sought after for commercial studio sessions at Tuff Gong Records.
Assessing the prospects for 2022 and beyond, music teacher Andrae Wilson told The Gleaner that Ardenne’s future in the performing arts is in excellent hands.
“Our students have the potential to do big things. A few outstanding ones who have excelled in music are Diallo Malcolm (producer); Mathew Lobban (musician/producer); Abigail Dunstan (vocalist) and Leonardo Parkinson (vocalist and video director), while, in drama, standouts include Aliyah Hall, Reece Lee, Melony Salmon and Shanelle Carey” he noted.
“Ardenne fully embraces the concept of whole-child development as an integral part of our unique school experience, and our music programme embraces that reality”, Nadine Molloy stated proudly. “We see our music programme growing and expanding as new students and staff join us with skills in varied styles and expressions of this powerful and enduring art form.”