By Eric Blowtorch Special to Published Jun 27, 2007 at 10:34 AM

KINGSTON 4, JAMAICA -- Today is the last Wednesday of June, and Alpha Boys’ School is a much quieter place than when I first arrived.  Soon the boys with parents or guardians will go on vacation for seven to eight weeks.  At an assembly last Friday, the school’s principal and director both praised the boys for their hard and serious work on their exams.  Later that day, some of the boys were throwing rocks at other boys at a nearby school, resulting in one Alpha boy receiving a really bloody, ugly wound on the back of his head.

Outside Alpha’s gates, Kingston is a much scarier place.  In the late 1970s, the two major political parties, the Jamaican Labour Party and the Peoples’ National Party, distributed weapons amongst the poorest parts of town and paid area leaders, a/k/a dons, a/k/a gangsters to influence voters through intimidation and murder.  With a general election due to be called this summer, Jamaicans are taking pains to ensure that the kind of partisan violence that used to claim hundreds of lives around previous elections does not repeat.  The United Nations is preparing a gun control program for Jamaica, educating citizens about nonviolent behavior, training security forces in searching for illegal guns, and training members of the Jamaican Parliament in peaceful dispute resolution.

Kingston area leaders make their money primarily through selling guns and drugs, and by extorting protection payments from poor ghetto dwellers.  The foot soldiers in the ongoing fratricide are usually 11 to 15 years old.  Last week the Alpha Boys’ School driver, Mr. Mills, took us past Trench Town in the western part of Kingston, noting that he wasn’t driving through the area of late, due to the killing of an area leader’s mother.  Shortly afterward, in nearby Torrington Park, a 47-year-old woman and her 7-year-old daughter were shot and killed, and their bodies burnt.  Over 20 people in Torrington Park alone have lost their lives through violence this year.

Lack of education and lack of vocational skills are major reasons for the rampant crime in Jamaica.  Alpha Director Richard Foran told me that, in his opinion, Jamaican public schools provided a decent education until the early 1990s.  The current People’s National Party government, led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, has come under fire for spending money on nonessentials like the new cricket stadium while continuing to neglect Jamaica’s schools.

In the last two weeks, every day here has been sunny and very warm.  Most buildings here have no air conditioning.  Just getting dressed in the morning leaves one dripping with sweat.  Whenever I remark to the locals about how beautiful the day is, the reaction is usually one of confusion: isn’t every day the same?  Uptown especially, the heat, especially when combined with traffic congestion, noise, and long lines everywhere, can cause terrible irritation.

The minimum wage here amounts to about $1.25 an hour, even though an apartment here is just as expensive as in Milwaukee.  Quite a few Jamaicans believe that the people who squat in abandoned buildings or improvised zinc fence shacks actually prefer to live in these dangerous, dirty conditions.  The stereotype of the shanty down dweller is one of a country person lured to Kingston by the bright lights and glamour, then brought down to harsh reality by their inability to find work.

The people of Jamaica seem slow to anger, despite their ferocity when riled.  The tone and flow of Jamaican conversation seems to allow greater candor and more benign modes of disagreement.  Even the worst Jamaican insults have a childlike sound.  The boys at Alpha, many of whom have had to tough it out on the road for years, don’t seem to have the hair-trigger temper of their American counterparts.  Motorists blow their horns constantly, usually as a greeting or to signify one’s presence.

From listening to my workmates, the musical taste of the average Jamaican is just as likely to include Air Supply and Michael Bolton as Horace Andy or Dennis Brown.  The radio here is not full of brilliant Jamaican music, as every station seems to be corporate controlled.  Most of the modern selections I hear are anonymous-sounding reggae songs with saccharine vocals, clichéd lyrics about love and unity, etc., and no dynamics or room for human nuance.  The rhythm sections all sound the same: tight, squeaky clean and dull as the day is long.

Orange Street and Constant Spring Road, south and north of Alpha respectively, are home to the four most prominent record shops in Kingston: Augustus Pablo’s Rockers International, Techniques Record Shop, Derrick Harriott’s One-Stop and Aquarius.  Pablo’s shop, run by the late producer’s son Gareth, has the best atmosphere and selection of reissues; Aquarius is the place for new releases; their man Clive will spin sides for you until you can take no more.

Sitting in with the Alpha band members at Lennie Hibbert Hall (a big, beautiful barn-like room with loads of photographs, record jackets, instruments, souvenirs and newspaper articles on the walls, heralding the musical achievements of past graduates Rodriguez, Drummond, McCook and others) last week led to an unexpected assignment.  The band currently lacks a rhythm guitarist, so they invited me to play with them at their Friday morning assembly.  With two trumpeters, two alto saxophonists, a tenor saxophonist, a trombonist, a flautist and a bass/drums/congas/piano rhythm section, we performed three instrumentals: a ska rendition of The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” a slow rubato version of the Jamaican National Anthem “Eternal Father” and a march-tempo “Upward and Onward,” the school song, written by Mr. Hibbert.

In rehearsals and after school hours, the boys grilled me for information about America: Does everybody there have a car?  Do they have seasons?  Why do so many young girls there look older?  Do I know any famous people?  When am I leaving?  When am I coming back?

With an hour-long fundraising recital set for Sunday morning, the band suffered a major setback: their bass player left the school.  His status for the Friday assembly was shaky, and the boys held out hope until the last minute that he would play Sunday, but by Saturday evening he was gone.  Fortunately, I had taken decent notes while the band practiced with him, and so they drafted me to play bass.  Sunday morning we serenaded the congregants of Holy Trinity Church, a few blocks away from Alpha, with an hour of good reggae (Cedric ‘Im Brooks’s “Money Maker,” Sound Dimension’s “Rockfort Rock,” “Amazing Grace”), ska (Tommy McCook’s “Freedom Sounds,” the Skatalites’ “Addis Ababa” and Don Drummond’s “Occupation”), soul (Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”), gospel (“When the Saints Go Marching In”), and mento (“Yellow Bird,” “Linstead Market” and more) under a big tent.

The occasion of the Sunday band concert was the 85th anniversary of Grace Kennedy Foods, a major Jamaican food distributor and exporter.  The event was a heartening reminder that the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund had not completely destroyed Jamaican industry.  For that Sunday recital, the boys insisted I wear the yellow Alpha Boys’ Band shirt.  Afterwards, they presented me with the shirt as a gift.  Playing with the Alpha Boys’ Band was a rare, unexpected honor.  The best things here have happened too quickly for reflection or emotional reaction.

One night after band practice, I asked the tenor saxophonist in the Alpha Boys’ Band if he found it daunting to be learning music in an environment full of monuments to the greatness of past band members.  “Echoes,” he replied.

This same tenorman asked me if I liked Jamaica, and if I had seen the water.  I told him that I did and I had, adding that it was a pleasant surprise to step into a natural body of water and see my knees.  The saxman seemed confused.  I explained that, back home, the great lake in which I used to swim was too polluted for bathing.

“Purify the water, sir,” he told me. 

Eric Blowtorch Special to
Eric Blowtorch is a veteran Milwaukee musician and DJ who currently leads Eric Blowtorch & The Welders.