Highlights abound as Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin reflects on his 60-year career in music, but, overall, he says “God has shown me the purpose for which I was created and I give thanks for the strength I get to do what I need to help people and be a part of people’s lives.
The multi-instrumentalist has always been connected to his purpose. As a boy from Jones Town, Kingston, he avoided school to see the Marcus Garvey band, captivated by the nuances of the performance, instruments and music. But with his rebellion and his father’s “severe punishments”, Martin’s mother was at wit’s end and took him to Alpha Boys’ School when he was eight. At the time, they offered care and protection for at-risk boys, but he received more than that through the music business at the hands of bandleader Ruben Delgado.
“He was Jamaican (military) regimental band and had played all over the world…I realized the Alpha band was a relay for military band so I was hoping at the time that I could go. I started making music as a whole and learned to play different instruments like the euphonium. Years later, Mr. Delgado quit and we had a new bandleader, Mr. Lennie Hibbert, who taught me how to play the drums,” Martin recalls.
By the time he left school at 18, Martin could play brass, drums and could also read music charts. He was indeed able to play with the military band, but also in nightclubs like the Silver Slipper in Cross Roads where he accepted the challenge of playing cha cha, mambo and merengue rhythms. The transition from Alpha to the real world was exciting for the musician who yearned to see the world.
“I went to England with Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, then after a while I was with the Sonny Bradshaw Quartet, Carlos Malcom and the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, and then I joined another band , Inner Circle, and we played at Madison Square Garden in New York.
He also worked in the studio as a drummer on Lord Creator’s Independent Jamaica and Bob Marley and the Wailers stir it up, and worked with jazz pianist Monty Alexander and veteran producer Coxsone Dodd. As his portfolio grew, so did his desire to help others. Martin began teaching at schools in Kingston, Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay, and in 1988 was called to then Alpha Boys’ School principal, Sister Ignatius Davis, to be a conductor.
“I took the job, but I couldn’t do it on a regular basis, and she said ‘it’s not enough’. I said, ‘I’m doing some outside work’ and she said, ‘Remember the Lord will bless you.’ Knowing the kind of person she was and the respect I had for her, I said, “Okay sister.” So I gave it all up. »
Tough days lay ahead for Martin, who often questioned his ability to do what Delgado and Hibbert had done for him. Yet he had a vision and found his own rhythm.
“I start to offer them the type of music that they would like and the type of music that people would like to hear them play. I have to understand that it will make the Alpha group more popular because we used to have a lot of people. jobs because we were playing everything. By the time the school became The Alpha Institute, I was doing it alone with 50 boys, and people were asking me how I was doing. I said, the first thing to do is d get guys interested in what they do. Show them the discipline to do what they have to do and learn to understand them, talk to them.
He aimed to bring the band to a level where it could rival any other local band, and achieved this before leaving the post after 37 years.
“When I look and see these guys that I had in the band, they’re playing all over the world. You see them playing with artists like Beres Hammond, a lot of them are in the Jamaica Military Band, some are alone overseas, others are in hotels across Jamaica. Thirty-seven years is a long time, but things like that have given me the strength to keep doing more,” Martin said.
He still keeps tabs on Alpha and hopes the institution will establish an arts center to make the boys more complete beyond music.
Personally, he takes care of his group Skasonics, revamped from Ska Rebirth which he created with some of his former students in 2011. His intention was to revive ska following the “migration of the Skatalites where ska is went with them” and educate young people about their musical history.
“It’s been going really well and now I have young men and old men. They’re all Alpha Boys from the 60s through the 80s and 90s, representing different eras of music and also the history of Alpha Boys’ School, and I think it works.
He also taught at the University of Technology for over two decades.