Josh Chamberlain ’99 fell in love with music as an undergrad, spinning tunes as a DJ for WUNH. A history major, Chamberlain was interested in the cultural roots of different kinds of music and became fascinated with the bold, rhythmic musical forms of Jamaica. But he had no idea this interest would one day inspire him to move to that country and ultimately lead to his involvement with a world-famous music school.
While working on his doctorate in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, Chamberlain connected with Sister Susan Frazer of the Alpha Boy’s School, who invited him to become an Alpha volunteer. Run by Roman Catholic nuns, the school was founded in 1880 as a place for “wayward boys.” Alpha received its first instruments in 1892 and launched a music program that is now world-renowned.
From reggae to ska to rocksteady, “nearly every style of Jamaican music has been influenced by musicians who once attended the Alpha Boys School,” Chamberlain explains.
Until recently a group home for students who arrived by way of the Jamaican court system, Alpha today is a day program for boys with remedial learning needs. “When students come here, they get an education, are cared for, taught values and taught a trade that they can pursue after completing school,” Chamberlain says. Alpha is the only remedial training program in the Kingston area with an emphasis on giving students a viable skill for entering the workforce. Students can choose from landscaping, woodworking, and screenprinting —and of course, music.
Chamberlain does fundraising, marketing and development on behalf of the school, and has helped create two initiatives to promote and sustain the Alpha’ programs. One is the 24-hour Alpha Boys School Radio, an online station run in partnership with WXGR in Portsmouth, N.H. that plays “all Alpha all the time,” with Jamaican reggae, ska and jazz. The second endeavor is a screen-printing business that features designs by Jamaican graphic artist Michael “Freestyle” Thompson. Launched in April 2013 with a line of T-shirts, AlphaWearJA recently expanded to tote bags made in the school’s tailoring shop.
“Our goal is to find new ways to promote the school and ensure it is successful for many years to come,” Chamberlain explains. “Its music has been well known and highly regarded for some time; now we need the school as a whole to be recognized the same way.”
The dedication that marks Chamberlain’s connection to Alpha is nothing new. After UNH, he worked for New Hampshire state senator Lou D’Allesandro ’60, who was among those who encouraged his interest in community service and civic engagement. Now, Chamberlain’s doctoral work looks at the way an individual’s sense of identification as part of a cultural group influences his or her involvement in the community. He’s particularly interested in the role played by Jamaican sound systems—groups of musicians, disc jockeys and engineers who set up street parties with huge portable speakers and turntables—which emerged in Kingston in the 1950s and today attract international attention on par with professional sports teams.
“Music is very central to the cultural identity of Jamaica and fans of Jamaican culture worldwide,” Chamberlain says. It’s central to his own identity, as well. He played a number of instruments growing up, he says, but none of them clicked. “I never had the practice discipline,” he admits. “But discipline is one of Alpha’s strongest values, so now at least I’m in the best possible place to learn.”
Originally published by:
UNH Magazine, Fall 2014 Issue