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Published on Dec 3, 2007

The Nun Who Nurtured Reggae

Broadcast on Radio 4 Sat 24 Nov - 10:30

Jonathon Charles tells the story of Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, who ran the music programme at Alpha School for wayward boys in Jamaica for 64 years until her death in 2003.

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Obituary from The Independent.

Sister Mary Ignatius Davies

Headmistress behind ska and reggae

Published: 03 March 2003

SISTER MARY IGNATIUS DAVIES played a major role in the genesis of ska and reggae, the genres which have put Jamaica on the musical map.

Mary Davies, nun and teacher: born Innswood, Jamaica 18 November 1921; professed a nun of the Sisters of Mercy, taking the name Ignatius; died Kingston, Jamaica 9 February 2003.

Sister Mary Ignatius Davies played a major role in the genesis of ska and reggae, the genres which have put Jamaica on the musical map.

As head of the Alpha Boys' School in Kingston, she took in wayward boys and turned them into excellent musicians who made their name nationally and internationally. In particular, Sister Ignatius nurtured the talent of the tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, the trombonist Don Drummond and the trumpeter Johnny "Dizzy" Moore, who went on to form the Skatalites, and also guided the trombonist Rico Rodriguez who moved to Britain, played with the Specials on their chart-topping Special A.K.A. EP of January 1980 and is currently a member of Jools Holland's Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.

Born in Innswood, St Catherine, in 1921, Mary Davies was a pupil at the Alpha Academy, a girls' school attached to the institution she would eventually head. Originally called the Alpha Cottage School and founded in 1880 by the Sisters of Mercy order of Roman Catholic nuns, which Davies joined, taking the name Ignatius, the Kingston reform school instilled discipline into the orphans and problem children it looked after and also taught music to help the pupils focus their energy and channel their aggression.

The Alpha Boys' School had a full brass band -- the Drum & Fife Corps, founded in 1892 -- and, by the 1940s, even though students officially concentrated on classical music, they had also begun to experiment with jazz and latin rhythms.

Sister Ignatius made an easy transition into a teaching role and was soon building on the founding principles of the Alpha school. Her slight physical appearance belied her determination and the dedication she showed her charges. She brooked no nonsense but possessed an amazing ability to spot talent and help her pupils find gainful employment later in life. She mentored several generations of instrumentalists, starting in the 1940s with the jazz saxophonists Bertie King, Wilton Gaynair, Harold McNair and Joe Harriott, the trumpeter Alphonse "Dizzy" Reece and Leslie Thompson, who became the first black conductor of the London Symphonic Orchestra.

The future Skatalites Tommy McCook, Don Drummond and Johnny Moore greatly benefited from their time at the Alpha Boys' School and sometimes returned to help the nuns with their tuition. The trumpeter Eddie Thornton, later a member of Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, and Rico Rodriguez also enjoyed their time studying with Sister Ignatius at Alpha in the Fifties. "I don't feel no school inna Jamaica teach you better than that school," said the trombonist. "When you leave Alpha, you can really go forward for yourself."

Indeed, the drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace, who starred in Rockers, the film directed by Theodoros Bafaloukas in 1978, the vocalist Leroy Smart and the dance-hall DJ Yellowman continued in the great tradition of Alpha alumni.

In 2000, Sister Ignatius accompanied the exhibits of the Alpha school museum -- the horn instruments of her former pupils as well as gems from her record collection -- to the "Island Revolution" exhibition in Seattle. She also contributed to Island Rock, the documentary series broadcast last year on BBC Radio 2 to mark the 40th anniversary of Jamaican independence.

A tiny bird-like figure, she enjoyed showing visitors and documentary-makers around the Alpha premises where she had made her mark. Her favourite record was by one of her former pupils, the late Don Drummond's "Eastern Standard Time".

Pierre Perrone


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