Skanking with Sister Iggy!

sister ignatius turntable

This is Sister Mary Ignatius Davies turntable! It is in the collection at the EMP Museum in Seattle, donated by Sister Iggy herself. Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, also known as Sister Ignatius or Sister Iggy, was crucial to mentoring, educating, and raising the boys at Alpha, and she single-handedly shaped the course of music with her passion and devotion to her boys. She was born in Jamaica in 1921 in Innswood, St. Catherine. She came to Kingston as a child where she attended Mico Elementary School and then became a student at the Alpha Academy, which was the girls’ section of the institution. Sister Ignatius became a member of the Sisters of Mercy, or a nun, shortly after her graduation from school since she felt a calling to their way of life and she started serving at the Alpha Boys School in 1939.

Sister Iggy, once described by Pierre Perrone, a reporter at The Independent, as “bird-like” because of her diminutive stature, had a great love for music. It was because of her passion for all kinds of music that the band program prospered. The band program at Alpha Boys School had long been established back in 1892 as a drum and fife corps, and then bolstered in 1908 when a Roman Catholic bishop in Jamaica donated a number of brass instruments to the school. The same year, Walter S. Harrison became a drill sergeant at the school, appointed by the Jamaican Defense Force, and he even served as the inaugural bandmaster for one year but continued on as drill sergeant through the mid-1960s. As a result, there was a strong connection between Alpha and the military and after graduation from Alpha, boys frequently took positions in the West Indian Regiment which became the Jamaican Military Band after independence. Music taught during these times was solely classical. But under the leadership of Sister Ignatius, the band program grew since she saw the opportunities in music for her boys after they left Alpha. The band program also grew in Sister Ignatius’s years because music was her passion.

It is quite a sight to imagine a petite nun in her full habit, spinning records at a DJ’s turntables, music pumping from the huge speakers for the boys who danced to the hits, but that’s exactly what Sister Ignatius did on many occasions at Alpha Boys School to show the boys the varieties of music they could play in the clubs to earn a living. “She build a sound system, we call it Mutt and Jeff. The reason for that, the people who used to play the music, one man was very tall, the other one is very short, so we call it Mutt and Jeff,” says Sparrow Martin, bandmaster at Alpha and former student. Sister Ignatius bought her sound system from Mutt and Jeff who were sound system operators, modern day DJs. Davy attended Alpha Boys School and returned to emcee events. With the blessing of Sister Iggy, Davy had the Alpha boys at the woodshop create his cabinets and his friend, Leighton Geoff, created the electrical components of the amplification system from parts and knowledge Geoff gained in his employment at Wonards.

After Davy decided in 1964 to leave the life of the sound system behind to spend more time with his wife and their eleven children, he sold his entire set, equipment and music, to Sister Ignatius who added the records to her already-large collection. Sister Ignatius had hundreds of 78 and 45 records in her collection—everything from classical music to speeches by Malcolm X. This collection was built from not only Davy’s additions, but Sister Ignatius would regularly send her students, such as Floyd Lloyd Seivright, to purchase records from local record shops, giving him money for the acquisition and a list of her selections. Sister Ignatius recognized the potential of the music for her boys. Of the music that would soon develop in Jamaica and take over the world, largely the result of the talent at Alpha Boys School, Sister Ignatius once said, “I knew it was not going to stay in Jamaica only.”

Sparrow Martin recalls his days as a student when they all listened to her tunes. “So she would come on Saturdays and she would have a whole lot of record, you name it, classical, jazz record, pop record, all kind, Latin, American, European music, Cuban music, and mento music, and she would say, ‘Okay today we are going to listen to classical music,’ and she would take out Beethoven, Bach, and she says, especially to the band boys, ‘Listen to your classical music.’ Then she’d say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play jazz for you today,’ and she’d play jazz music. Then she’d play Cuban music. Now we don’t speak Spanish but she would take Spanish music from Cuba and she’d say, ‘Listen to the drums, listen to the bass, listen to how they play saxophone.’ She would sit down with you so you have the interest,” says Martin. And Sister Ignatius even took up her instrument from time to time. Vocalist Owen Grey says, “Our teacher, Sister Ignatius, she was a musician herself because she could play the saxophone, she could play the flute, and she was very strict.”

Read more about Sister Iggy and her impact on the life of Don Drummond in Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist. For more information, click the “Ska Books” link above.

Tonight! Marguerita and Don Drummond

june15 1955 don and margarita

There has been much speculation about how and when Anita Mahfood, stage name Margarita or as it is spelled here, Marguerita, and Don Drummond met each other. Some say it was in the Wareika Hills, but there is evidence they met long before that. Here in this June 15, 1955 advertisement in the Daily Gleaner, we see that Don Drummond and Margarita appeared together on the same bill and it is the earliest proof of their performing together. They performed in the same evening of entertainment which was the order of the day–entertainment after movies, between movies, on the outdoor or indoor stages, featured a variety of acts–dancing, comedy, pantomime, and yes, music.

In 1955, those musicians on the bill weren’t playing ska. Performances like these in the early and mid 1950s, even the late 1950s, were largely jazz or American R&B, or calypso. Janet Enright performs here with Don Drummond and the two were good friends from the get-go. Janet was a female jazz guitarist and Don Drummond took good care of her, like a little sister. And we also see Roland Alphonso on the bill too, another skilled jazz instrumentalist who would go on to perform in the studio and stage with Don for the next decade and in the Skatalites.

This advertisement and the placement of Don and Anita in the same place does not suggest at all that the two started a relationship as early as 1955–not at all. Anita would have been only 16 at this point, in fact she had just turned 16 the day before this ad appears. Four years later she would marry boxer Rudolph Bent and have her first child, although not in that order. Still she would continue to perform on bills like this, on the stages of the movie theaters, in virtually every club in Kingston, commiserating with her fellow performers, like Don Drummond and years later, when they grew close in the Wareika Hills, a relationship was kindled–to a devastating end.

Read the details of their lives and relationship in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, skabook.com.

Ska's Next Generation in Jamaica

addis ababba

Take a look at what the Alpha Boys Band is learning to play–Addis Ababba, written by Don Drummond! I visited the Alpha Boys School for the first time in 2011 and again this year and Band Director Sparrow Martin is always challenging his boys with music of the greats, like Don D, as well as classical, band music, jazz, and all types of music. This sweet boy, Kadeem who was 12 in 2011, had no idea that Don Drummond had written this song when I stopped by to watch him practice. When I asked him, “Do you know who wrote this?” and I told him Don Drummond, he realized that one of his own, an Alpha Boy just like him, had become a composer, a world-renown music, a national hero despite the horrors of his life.

Sparrow continues to foster his youth at Alpha. He himself was an Alpha Boy since he was 10 years old and has served as band leader since 1989. “You must play with me, mon!” he tells the boys and he leads them with his small electronic keyboard or drumsticks on the back of a metal chair. At the encouragement of the late great Lloyd Brevett, Sparrow has founded Ska Rebirth, a group of Alpha Boys who have graduated from the band and shown exceptional skill. They perform many of the Skatalites original songs. Sparrow says, “What we are doing here is not just starting a band. We are starting a movement, one which will bring back the original sound of ska from its roots and home, Alpha boys school in Kingston Jamaica, and spread it once again across the entire world. This is the real SKA Rebirth!!”

I had the pleasure of hearing them practice in February 2013–let me tell you, they are amazing! They were surprised I recognized the songs–can you imagine!? But Jamaicans many times don’t have an appreciation for the past, the foundation ska, like many others around the world do. Ska is called “granny music” or “the oldies” by Jamaican youth who prefer to listen to dancehall. But the music of the Skatalites is begin given a “rebirth” by Sparrow and others like Jamaica Music Museum Curator and Founder Herbie Miller, and Historian and Tribute to the Greats Founder Kingsley Goodison. The music of Don Drummond and the Skatalites continues on!

To hear Ska Rebirth’s killer take on a classic Skatalites tune, visit Ska Rebirth Song and like them on Facebook, Facebook Ska Rebirth

Skanking Models

mademoiselle

 

Skanking models–no, that’s not a rude put-down, it’s the description of a photo spread from Mademoiselle magazine, September 1964. This issue featured a six-page spread of models “doing the ska,” complete with some text that makes the dance, and hence the music, sound like the newest hippest thing. Here are a few excerpts from the text:

“What’s it like in the discotheques these nights? There’s a new dance, the Ska–like the Game, set to music.”

“The Ska-step, Riding the Horse.”

“Where the music goes round and round (on records), where the dance is the thing and the Ska’s the limit, what’s going on. Rowing the beat, one of the characteristic steps.”

“The step–pulling the rope–another subdivision of the Ska.”

“The basic ska and a far-from-basic dress.”

Any link between the date on this vintage article and the timing of the World’s Fair in New York? You betcha! This article was part of the push from Jamaican officials (Edward Seaga) to promote Jamaican ska, and therefore Jamaican culture and tourism. The person standing behind the cameraman on all of these shots, teaching these models to skank, is none other than Ronnie Nasralla, he told me himself. Nasralla said they also performed with their troupe of Jamaican ska dancers, including Jannette Phillips when she wasn’t performing at the Peppermint Lounge, and Sheila Khouri Lee, before she became wife of Byron Lee, on American Bandstand and at hotels and clubs all up and down the east coast. Performing music for these stints was Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. The dance, “the Ska,” was nothing like the “skank” during the 2Tone years when the pogo and other forms came into the mix, but it was a dance with “steps” designed to capitalize on the success of similar dances, like the frug, the twist, the watusi and others.

Arthur Murray and Ska?

world fair photo murray

Did you know that Arthur Murray, the famous dance instructor who founded his franchise of national dance studios, once learned how to “Do the Ska” from Ronnie Nasralla and Sheila Khouri Lee, wife of Byron Lee at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC? Pictured here is a rare photo of Ronnie Nasralla teaching Arthur Murray’s wife, Mrs. Kathryn Murray, how to really get down! The caption from the photo, which appeared in the May 3, 1964 edition of the New Amsterdam News, reads, “Mrs. Katheryn Murray apparently enjoys being on the receiving end of a dance lesson as she learns the new “Jamaica Ska.” She was among the celebrities invited to Shepheard’s Night Club for the American premiere of the “Ska” by a troupe of Jamaican dancers, who were flown up from the Caribbean island to demonstrate the dance. The combination of a slow twist, shadow-boxing, and setting-up exercises, has swept the jet set in New York in the short time since its debut.” The photo was shot on April 26, 1964.

You may have thought that Ronnie and Jannette, Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips, taught the crowds to “do the ska” at the World’s Fair in 1964, but actually, it was Ronnie Nasralla and his partner Sheila Khouri Lee, who was just Sheila Khouri at that time as she was not yet married, nor even dating, Byron Lee. Jannette, who appears with Ronnie on all of the brochures and albums that Ronnie designed for Eddie Seaga, then minister of culture, was serving a residency at the Peppermint Lounge in Miami during the time of the World’s Fair, so Sheila became Ronnie’s dance partner. There were other couples who performed the ska during the fair, but Sheila, who was childhood and life-long friends with Ronnie, as well as Eddie Seaga, filled the role and met her future husband, Byron Lee!

Now, you may notice, if you look carefully, a smiling man in the background of this photo. Who is that, but none other than Prince Buster looking quite dapper in his best threads! I wonder if this was before or after he met and took members of the group with him up to Harlem to visit Muhammad Ali where he was influenced by Ali’s recent conversion to Islam, Prince Buster himself soon converting to the faith as well. There were many others that likely danced or performed that day and all the days surrounding the Jamaican presence at the World’s Fair such as Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff, of course Prince Buster and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Ken Khouri, founder of Federal Records, plus others. Over the years much talk has been had about who was not present at the World’s Fair, such as the Skatalites and Don Drummond, but it is just as important to go back and look at who was there and the impact this event had on the world of ska. Love Seaga or hate him, the fact is, without his push ska may never have been able to have the recognition it finally did, and although it didn’t take off the way he wanted it to at the time, it did put in the minds of Americans and the world that there was something brewing in Jamaica.

Little did the world know!

Margarita Mahfood

margarita

With the recent release of my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, and the launch of this blog, I thought it only fitting to start with Anita Mahfood and a photo of her father and sisters that didn’t make it into the book. I love this photo. I think it says it all. There are the four sweet girls, innocent and young, full of potential and life, and their protective father, Jad Eid Mahfood, behind them, proud, brooding. But there is something sinister beneath the surface. Anita, the beautiful cherub, appears on the far left next to her sisters Janet, Conchita, and Monira from left to right. Theses four girls would each experience their own level of abuse from Jad Eid depending on the stages of his suffering. Anita would leave that home to go to another where the abuse was worse, marrying Rudolph Bent, the great British Honduran boxer, only after she was pregnant by him, the result of a rape. She would leave that marriage for the security of another, Don Drummond, her colleague of many years in the entertainment circuit–she a rhumba dancer, he the greatest trombonist the island, perhaps the world, had ever heard. But that abuse was worse than all others, resulting in her murder at Drummond’s hands early the morning of January 2nd, 1965 after she returned from her performance at Club Havana where she headlined.

I was sad to learn that Conchita had passed away this year in her home near Toronto, Canada. She was the last of the four girls here on earth. Jad Eid passed away the year after Anita was murdered–a heart attack, or a broken heart. Janet passed away a few years ago and Monira before that. Such tragedy had come to this family, not only from Anita’s murder and the aftermath of the pain that all the sisters and family felt, especially Anita’s children, forever, but also there was the tragedy of the girls’ mother, Brenda May Virtue, who attempted suicide twice before succeeding a third time. It was a brutal life. But in this photo, all appears happy, peaceful, loving, proud. You would never know by looking at this beautiful family photo all the pain that would follow.

I promise not to make all of my blogs so macabre. It’s just that, as I said, I do love this photo and my publisher wasn’t able to put it in, said the resolution wasn’t good enough and it was the only version I had. The world of foundation ska is big and there are many things for me to talk about, most all brighter than this, so upward and onward!

People Get Ready!

This is the launch of the new Foundation Ska blog, specifically dedicated to bringing back the history of ska in Jamaica. See never-before-seen photos of the greats, learn about the days in the studios, see advertisements for the shows, and enhance your love for the music.