Jamaica school serves as cradle for island’s music

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In this Feb. 17, 2014 photo, 11-year-old Tyrone Muirhead, right, is plays the trumpet with the band at the Alpha Boys’ School, a residential vocational school in Kingston, Jamaica. The school has been a cornerstone of Jamaica’s prolific musical culture for over a century, producing numerous musicians who have taken the homegrown musical genres of ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world. But despite its outsized role in developing Jamaica’s world-famous music, the school is increasingly squeezed between rising costs and shrinking state support, barely scraping by on the $60 weekly the government provides per student. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

In this Feb. 17, 2014 photo, 11-year-old Tyrone Muirhead, right, is plays the trumpet with the band at the Alpha Boys’ School, a residential vocational school in Kingston, Jamaica. The school has been a cornerstone of Jamaica’s prolific musical culture for over a century, producing numerous musicians who have taken the homegrown musical genres of ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world. But despite its outsized role in developing Jamaica’s world-famous music, the school is increasingly squeezed between rising costs and shrinking state support, barely scraping by on the $60 weekly the government provides per student. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

In this Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, photo, music instructor Winston “Sparrow†Martin is shown playing a trumpet, leading a band of former students at a church service in Kingston, Jamaica. The veteran bandmaster has provided a solid musical foundation for numerous boys at Alpha Boys’ School, a residential vocational school in Kingston which has been a cornerstone of Jamaica’s prolific musical culture for over a century. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

In this Feb. 17, 2014 photo, a cardboard cutout is shown displayed on the bass drum of the band’s kit at the Alpha Boys’ School, a residential vocational school in Kingstom, Jamaica. The school has been a cornerstone of Jamaica’s prolific musical culture for over a century, producing numerous musicians who have taken the homegrown musical genres of ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world. At the school, students between 8 and 18 are taught to read music and understand harmony and composition, if they don’t focus on the school’s more traditional trades like woodworking and tailoring. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

In this Feb, 13, 2014 photo, the bandaged hand of 15-year-old Chevon Harriott is shown fingering valves on a trumpet while he practices under the shady canopy of trees that dot the campus of the Alpha Boys’ School school in Kingston, Jamiaca. Decade after decade, Alpha alumni have emerged from the musical hothouse in Kingston to bring the sounds of Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world. Alpha’s music program dates back to 1892, when boys participated in a drum and fife corps. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

In this Feb. 17, 2014 photo, 14-year-old Brad Hylton helps classmate Omar Bird play a drum beat with the band at Alpha Boys’ School, a residential vocational school in Kingston, Jamaica. The school has been a cornerstone of Jamaica’s prolific musical culture for over a century, producing numerous musicians who have taken the homegrown musical genres of ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

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KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Barefoot and dressed in donated clothes, 12-year-old Renaldo Brown methodically plays scales on a flute under the canopy of trees at a Jamaican vocational school renowned for nurturing many of this music-steeped island’s top instrumentalists.

“It’s challenging but I like it. I’m getting better ’cause I’ve been practicing nearly every day for two years,” said the serious boy from the gritty Jamaican city of Spanish Town, tapping the keys on the silver-colored wind instrument as he spoke.

Renaldo is among two dozen boys from impoverished backgrounds who are discovering a new world through music after being placed by family courts at Alpha Boys’ School. Some of the boys are orphans, while others are placed at the home because of neglect, abuse or because their parents can’t control them.

A residential facility operated by Catholic nuns since the late 19th century, the school has long been the cradle of Jamaica’s prolific music culture — and a beacon of hope for at-risk youngsters. Decade after decade, Alpha alumni have emerged from the musical hothouse in Kingston to bring the sounds of Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae to the world.

But despite its outsized role in developing Jamaica’s world-famous music, the school is increasingly squeezed between rising costs and shrinking state support, barely scraping by on the $60 weekly the government provides per student. The budget crunch has gotten so bad administrators say they will be forced to eliminate the program’s residential side later this year.

In response, the school is building up its own revenue-generating businesses, including a recently launched “Alpha Wear” clothing line and an Internet radio station that draws 60,000 people monthly by broadcasting tunes featuring alumni. School director Sister Susan Frazer said the online radio program isn’t bringing in revenue yet, but is expected to eventually raise money through sponsorship and advertising.

Frazer, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order, said Alpha also plans to expand and modernize its training for young students to ensure the famed music program survives.

“Moving forward, we’re going to focus a lot more on the music program in all aspects,” she said. “It won’t be just instrument playing, but rather the whole business of music.”

At the school, students between 8 and 18 are taught self-discipline and pride while learning to read music and understand harmony and composition, if they don’t focus on the school’s more traditional trades like woodworking and tailoring. Alpha currently has about 85 kids, and 25 of them are in the music program.

Past students who have transcended rough starts in life to become top musicians include the four founding members of the influential band The Skatalites, the late free-form jazz pioneer Joe Harriott, and dancehall deejay Yellowman. Many others have found work as formidable

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