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Alpha’s musical legacy still alive and well

Published:Tuesday | October 27, 2015 | 12:36 PMRoy Black
Alpha Institute students in band music practice with Winston 'Sparrow' Martin.

Winston 'Sparrow' Martin, musical director of the Alpha Institute (formerly, Alpha Boys' School), has sought to keep the musical legacy of the institution alive through a number of personal projects which could rebound to the benefit of the school.

Ever since taking over the reins from Jackie Willis as bandmaster of the school in 1988, Martin's 27-year tenure has seen him turning out more than 50 students who have become accomplished musicians - some going on to back top-flight vocalists like Jimmy Cliff and Beresford Hammond.

Martin, himself a past student of the school and an accomplished drummer, has distinguished himself with the drums on Bob Marley's Catch a Fire album, the Lord Creator's Independent Jamaica and Ma and Pa, and Carlos Malcolm and The Afro Jamaican Rhythms' No.1 hit Bonanza Ska.

Speaking to Martin from the school's location at 26 South Camp Road in Kingston, recently, he confirmed that he already had two previous projects - Alpha Sonic in 1992 and Ska Rebirth, which have been ongoing since 2012.

According to Martin, the projects are designed to inspire, assist and demonstrate to students the various genres of Jamaican music and the impact it has had on the nation. Utilising past school band members, the current 'Ska Rebirth' thrust has managed to revive the music of the ska era while placing particular emphasis on the Skatalites band and the work they have done. Considered the main exponent of the genre, The Skatalites consisted of several past students of Alpha Boys' School band.

From all indications, Martin's next project, which he plans to implement in 2016, appears to be a most ambitious and exciting one. It aims at exploring and exposing the music and achievements of Carlos Malcolm and The Afro Jamaican Rhythms in a project he calls 'The Sparrow Martin Aggregation'.


Martin maintains that this is a unique venture, as for the first time in many years Latin Rhythms - which for a short while in 1960 became an integral part of Jamaican music - will again be placed on the front line.

Traditionally, Latin rhythms or Latin music was classified as music that originates in Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries of Central and South America.

The danceable rhythm infiltrated Jamaican music in 1960 and saw an Australian-dominated ensemble called The Caribs, and The Luther Williams Orchestra being the main exponents. Two years later, Carlos Malcolm and The Afro Jamaican Rhythms was launched at an explosive session above the Regal Cinema (now Azan Supercentre) and quickly became the most sought-after band in Jamaica.

It is not without significance that Malcolm was born in Panama, a Mecca for Latin rhythms. He grew up in Jamaica, where his father, upon recognising his son's gift for music, taught him the trombone and assisted him with attaining a Bachelor of Arts.

Sparrow Martin was the drummer in Malcolm's band in 1964, on the No.1 hit Bonanza Ska, and so he is quite familiar with Malcolm's Latin style. This asset, along with music sheets sent by Malcolm from Florida, where he resides, will assist tremendously with Sparrow's 2016 project.

According to Martin, Malcolm was a "Latin man", who specialised in the trombone, but what made him different was his ability to merge Latin rhythms with Jamaican mento to create a sound that was uniquely his own. It allowed him to create Latin-flavored calypsos like Rukumbine, Coolie Gal, Sly Mongoose and Cut Mumu in 1963.

Martin will be relying heavily on such songs, along with his musical aggregation, to send a message that Alpha's musical legacy is alive and well.