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Mothering a Musical Nation

Sister Ignatius militant, no-nonsense mother

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2022 | 12:07 AMSade Gardner - Staff Reporter

Poet Laureate of Jamaica Lorna Goodison hands over ‘Mother Muse’ at the Alpha Institute in December 2021.  A number of poems from the publication were about Sister Ignatius.
Poet Laureate of Jamaica Lorna Goodison hands over ‘Mother Muse’ at the Alpha Institute in December 2021. A number of poems from the publication were about Sister Ignatius.

Captain of Alpha Boys’ School football team is seen introducing Sister Ignacius to members of Alpha’s team at the National Stadium on Thursday, November 7, 1968 in the Private Secondary School competition.  Alpha won the match 6-2.
Captain of Alpha Boys’ School football team is seen introducing Sister Ignacius to members of Alpha’s team at the National Stadium on Thursday, November 7, 1968 in the Private Secondary School competition. Alpha won the match 6-2.

Sister Ignatius (right) and  Sister Mary Theresa (left) join members of the Alpha Red Sox, the Morin Challenge Trophy baseball league winners.
Sister Ignatius (right) and Sister Mary Theresa (left) join members of the Alpha Red Sox, the Morin Challenge Trophy baseball league winners.
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(For this special Mother’s Day celebration during the year of Jamaica 60, the Entertainment Desk is featuring some of the women who have made outstanding contributions to the fields of music and culture.)

She never had any biological children, but Sister Mary Ignatius Davies was a mother to Jamaica’s musical nation, and hundreds of boys whom she mentored at the Alpha Boys’ School, now the Alpha Institute.

Affectionately called Sister Ignatius (and Sister Iggy in some circles), she not only ensured that abandoned boys had somewhere to call home, but also a space where they could develop skills to earn a living, particularly musicianship.

An Alpha Academy graduate, Sister Ignatius joined the Sisters of Mercy because of her desire to serve, and started teaching at the boys’ school in her late teens. By the time she became headmistress in the 1960s, she was already a seminal figure in the development and rise of ska through her famous classes where she taught the nuances of different genres, how to mix songs (demonstrated on her Mutt and Jeff HiFi sound system), how to play music, and even how to dance to certain music forms.

Among those mentored by the musicologist are tenor saxophonist, Tommy McCook; trombonist, Don Drummond; and trumpeter Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, who went on to form The Skatalites; jazz saxophonists Bertie King, Wilton Gaynair, Harold McNair and Joe Harriott; multi-instrumentalist Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin; and dancehall star Yellowman.

The latter recalled her sound-system sessions which exposed him to music from names like John Holt, Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear and Dennis Brown. But he focused on Sister Ignatius as a motherly figure whom he met after leaving the Swift Purcell Boys’ Home in St Mary.

“She was the mother mi have inna Alpha Boys’ School because, you know, mi grow up as an orphan,” Yellowman told The Sunday Gleaner.

While he commended all the sisters for their great work, he said, “Ignatius was the down-to-earth one, the militant one who can deal with the boy dem in terms of getting them together. Fi a woman, she is strong fi a deal with so much boys.”

The Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt hitmaker recalled being “flogged” by her, but said the disciplining made him a better person.

“Me used to get a whole heap of disrespect and discrimination from the other children, and Sister Ignatius used to come round me and give me a hug and tell me ‘don’t worry about what them say or do, just know that someday it’s going to be over and you’re going to be a better person’. I still have some anger inna mi same way but the words of Sister Ignatius keep me calm,” Yellowman shared.

Sparrow Martin also spoke of her no-nonsense nature, revealing that he derived his ‘Sparrow’ moniker from Sister Ignatius after he was caught hiding in a tree in the rain. Martin and friends were playing a game of marbles under the tree when it started to rain. Sister Iggy had a strict rule that no one be in the rain, and so, when he saw her policing the grounds, he went up the tree.

“She uttered, ‘Come out of the tree, you naughty little sparrow. What would your mother do if you stayed there and drowned?’,” Martin recalled. The boys in the dormitory wouldn’t let him live it down, calling him ‘naughty sparrow’ from that day on. It was after he left the school and saw celebrated musician The Mighty Sparrow that he saw a positive connotation for the word and embraced it as his stage name.

Martin also benefitted from her sound-system sessions, building a music knowledge base that would help his career and inform his approach when he returned to Alpha in the late ‘80s to be the band director. Beyond music, he hailed Sister Iggy for teaching them to respect women and families. She was also quite the sports coach.

“She’d show us how to shoot a ball, show the goalkeeper that he needs to do this or that. She’d show us how to box, how to smash in table tennis. She was a real sportsperson.”

Sister Ignatius died of a heart attack in 2003. She was 81.

sade.gardner@gleanerjm.com