KINGSTON — Barefoot and dressed in donated clothes, 12-year-old Renaldo Brown methodically plays scales on a flute under the canopy of trees at a vocational school renowned for nurturing many of this music-steeped island’s top instrumentalists.
“It’s challenging but I like it. I’m getting better ’cause I’ve been practicing nearly every day for two years,” said the serious boy from gritty Spanish Town, tapping the keys on the silver-colored wind instrument as he spoke.
Renaldo is among two dozen boys from impoverished backgrounds who are discovering a new world through music after being placed by family courts at Alpha Boys’ School. Some of the boys are orphans, while others are placed at the home because of neglect, abuse or because their parents can’t control them.
A residential facility operated by Catholic nuns since the late 19th century, the school has long been the cradle of Jamaica’s prolific music culture – and a beacon of hope for at-risk youngsters.
Decade after decade, Alpha alumni have emerged from the musical hothouse in Kingston to bring the sounds of ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world.
But, despite its outsized role in developing Jamaica’s world-famous music, the school is increasingly squeezed between rising costs and shrinking state support, barely scraping by on the $60 weekly the government provides per student. The budget crunch has gotten so bad administrators say they will be forced to eliminate the program’s residential side later this year.
In response, the school is building up its own revenue-generating businesses, including a recently launched “Alpha Wear” clothing line and an Internet radio station that draws 60,000 people monthly by broadcasting tunes featuring alumni. School director Sister Susan Frazer said the online radio program isn’t bringing in revenue yet but is expected to eventually raise money through sponsorship and advertising.
Frazer, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order, said Alpha also plans to expand and modernize its training for young students to ensure the famed music program survives.
“Moving forward, we’re going to focus a lot more on the music program in all aspects,” she said. “It won’t be just instrument playing but, rather, the whole business of music.”
At the school, students between 8 and 18 are taught self-discipline and pride while learning to read music and understand harmony and composition, if they don’t focus on the more traditional trades like woodworking and tailoring. Alpha currently has about 85 kids, and 25 of them are in the music program.
Past students who have transcended rough starts in life to become top musicians include the four founding members of the influential band The Skatalites, the late free-form jazz pioneer Joe Harriott, and dancehall deejay Yellowman. Many others have found work as formidable backup players and session musicians, in Jamaica and other countries.
“You’ll find old students from Alpha keeping the legacy going just about everywhere. If you go to France, you’ll see Alpha boys playing music professionally. You go to Germany or New York, you’ll see Alpha boys,” said Winston “Sparrow” Martin, an alumnus who has provided a musical foundation to many boys as the school’s longtime band instructor while forging his own international recording career.
Classical, jazz and folk music were long part of the curriculum. But when the island got wind of American rhythm-and-blues through distant radio signals picked up at night in the 1950s, Alpha students with trumpets, trombones and other instruments transformed that music to create upbeat-accented ska, which later evolved into rocksteady and reggae.
Alpha’s music program dates back to 1892, when boys participated in a drum and fife corps. The outfit evolved into a famed brass band under the school’s longtime matriarch, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, an avid record collector who encouraged students’ musical talents for decades before her death in 2003 at age 81.
Joshua Chamberlain, a volunteer and organizer at the school, said Alpha plans to create a state-of-the-art recording studio on campus that would lure professional talent from overseas hoping to tap into the school’s musical mystique.
“Who wouldn’t want to come to a place where the music is seen to have gotten its start? The interest from around the world is definitely there,” said Chamberlain, who is from New Hampshire and is a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies campus in Jamaica.
Chamberlain said it’s expected that youngsters will soon augment their instrument lessons by learning about digital media production, recording and promotion. School officials have been raising funds from private companies, institutions and donors and are now trying to get $23,000 in donations through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to launch a basic on-air radio station to complement its online one. The school hopes to crowd-source as much as $200,000 to pay for a more sophisticated station and sound studio.
The current crop of Alpha boys are jazzed about the future. On a recent afternoon, band members practiced under a high-ceilinged building stocked with trumpets, saxophones and other instruments, some new and others battered and worn.
Immersed in the music, Renaldo played his flute in a circle with other advanced musicians, including a keyboardist and several horn players. During a break, Renaldo and most of his classmates said they dream of becoming pro musicians.
“A lot of other people from here have become musicians,” he said with a half-smile, looking down at his bare feet. ”Well, I hope I can, too.”