Alpha plus: Jamaica’s Alpha Boys School

Fans of Jamaican culture know that the decades-old music programme at Kingston’s Alpha Boys School has produced dozens of the island’s best musicians. But adapting to the twenty-first century means adding to that legacy with innovative new social entrepreneurship programmes. Tanya Batson-Savage investigates

Alpha Boys music students in 1960s. Photograph courtesy Alpha Boys SchoolStudents participate in a robotics workshop. Photograph by Tracy Mamoun

It’s a hot day in February as I drive up Mountain View Avenue in Kingston. The foothills of the Blue Mountains are dotted with patches of brown from the absence of rain. Higher up, their distinctive blueish-green speaks of lower temperatures. My eyes are drawn to the fleet of cars that broodily sit at the Mercedes Benz dealership, but my destination is wealth of another kind, and the innocuous white gate across the street, so narrow only a single car can pass through at a time. It’s the gate that leads to the compound housing the Alpha Boys School. Neither the gate nor the humble chain-link fence hint at the breadth and depth of history held within the walls of Alpha Boys, the space that has nurtured some of Jamaica’s most celebrated musical talent, including Don Drummond, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Dizzy Reece, and Cedric “Im” Brooks.

It’s early afternoon, so although the neighbourhood is home to several schools, three of which share their origins with Alpha (Jessie Ripole Primary, Alpha High School for Girls, and Alpha Primary), the street is quiet. In another hour or so, it will burst with life, as children make their way home across the busy city. But as a residential vocational institution for at-risk boys, Alpha is more than a school.

Music has brought the institution, and the rest of Jamaica, a rich portion of its history. But Sister Susan Frazer, the current head, explains that finance is a major challenge. The school gets a government subsidy of JA$6,000 per student per week, which accounts for only forty-five per cent of their budget. So recently, in a burst of social entrepreneurship, Alpha has been using its celebrated legacy as a launching pad for a sustainable future, with ventures in fashion, tourism, and music.

In 2013, the school introduced Alpha Wear JA, featuring a new logo, designed by Michael Thompson. The Alpha Boys School Radio, an online, twenty-four-hour live streaming venture featuring music from past Alpha Boys, soon followed, made possible through equipment and expertise from the US non-profit company Gritty. WXGR radio provides the media platform and online distribution.

The third strand of innovative entrepreneurship was added in early 2014, with Alpha Live!, a experiential tour of the school, giving visitors a chance to get to know the school’s history while meeting the current crop of Alpha Boys. Through these ventures, Alpha is simultaneously providing new streams of learning for its current crop of boys, as well as generating income to sustain itself.

Joshua Chamberlain, Alpha Boys’ manager for special projects, says that entrepreneurship has always been at the heart of Alpha. “Traditionally, it’s a vocational training school,” he says, “but it’s far more about entrepreneurship. They just never used that word before.” And our conversation reveals there’s been more than just a change of terminology.

The trades traditionally taught at Alpha are music, agriculture, woodwork, and tailoring, but in the past few years the pool of skills has been deepening. Screen-printing, resulting in the production of the Alpha Wear t-shirts, is an example. Now the line is being expanded to produce tote bags, created by the students in tailoring.

Through engagement with Alpha Radio, the students are also learning radio production skills. A recent grant from the Jamaica National Foundation will also allow them to renovate part of the Old Junior Room to house the radio station, and a Kickstarter promotion is underway to raise the rest. Within two years, the space will be fully converted to a station and media lab, and music promotion, production, and presentation will be added to the roster of skills. “It’s important that the students learn the business of music, not just how to play an instrument,” Chamberlain says.

Fifteen-year-old Joseph (not his real name) has been at Alpha for three years, and is one of those students. He is in the school band, as well as the business club, which teaches entrepreneurship. “When I came to Alpha, I heard about the band. I was inspired,” Joseph says, revealing a special joy that he plays trombone, as did Don Drummond, whom he enthusiastically describes as “one of the greatest trombonists that ever lived.”

Noting that music will provide him with a career path in the army, Joseph is also happy to be learning his business skills. “It helps you learn how to create a business, how to market it, and how to make money,” he explains, pointing out that he and his schoolmates will be staging an event featuring Alpha musicians.

The integration of Alpha Wear JA, Alpha Live!, and Alpha Boys Radio means that the young men are learning diverse aspects of the music business. The business club currently includes ten boys from screen-printing, music, and tailoring, who will engage in peer-to-peer training of other students.

Joseph is also proud to be a part of Alpha’s legacy, and admits that the public’s support for the school is heartening. “All the music on the radio is done by the Alpha boys, and I am an Alpha boy, so it means a lot to me to know that our music is being listened to around the world,” he says. He also intends to continue to work with Alpha long after he has left. “I want to support the school, because Alpha has taught me how to be a better person, and Alpha brings out my potential.”

Although music is the thing most easily associated with the school, Sister Susan explains, Alpha’s greatest contribution to Jamaica goes far beyond that. “Most Alpha boys probably choose a vocation other than music,” she says. “Yet they leave an equally important legacy of good citizenship, strong moral values, and an interest in their communities. It is not always visible, and you can’t hear it like music, but it is what makes the community stronger, and lives better.”

This belief in the school’s importance fuels the drive to ensure that Alpha remains relevant and inspiring to another generation of Jamaicans, as it fuses its past legacy with energy and innovation to enrich the future.