Many will mark February 6 as the birthday of reggae icon Bob Marley, but if you’re a “college” then February 6 has its own revered distinction – it’s the day in the year 1947 when the Chapel St Augustine of Kingston College was consecrated by Bishop Hardie “to the glory of God”.
“The union of religion and scholarship” was the main objective of the noble institution, Kingston College, and according to the records, it was one of the principles defended by Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The history of St Augustine’s Chapel and the Chapel Choir at Kingston College is closely linked. On February 6, 2022, the Saint-Augustin chapel will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its creation. And the multi-award winning Kingston College Chapel Choir (the region’s second oldest continuous choral group) will also mark a similar milestone.
The Kingston College Chapel Choir was founded by the Reverend Percival Gibson, then Principal of KC to accompany the new St Augustine’s Chapel in Clovelly Park. It is said that Gibson “envisioned that the chapel choir of Kingston College would be comparable to the choirs of the great cathedrals of Britain and Europe”.
Certain features of the Saint-Augustin chapel deserve their own history. The pulpit was carved from Jamaican mahogany by Alvin Marriott, the famous Jamaican sculptor. The benches were built by JN McKenzie of Handicrafts Ltd. and the chancel furnishings by Theophilus Jackson. Both men were pioneers in the production and design of high quality period furniture, and their works are part of famous collections around the world. The beautiful and dramatic east window of the resurrection scene, above the altar, was funded by the Old Boys in memory of the five boys who fell in World War II.
The two-manual organ, which was made by JM Walker & Sons, arrived in 1949. It was fully paid for by contributions from former boys, parents, pupils and school friends. It was installed in memory of the late Edeline Soutar, the first mistress of music, at a cost of over £2,300. For many years the organ needed a factory overhaul and was undertaken by an old boy, Dennis Lalor, in 2018 at a cost of $23 million. The organ has not yet been installed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funding for the chapel, its furnishings and fittings came from several sources. The biggest donation of £2,000 came from ‘A Friend of the School’ (believed to be Eddie Hanna). A parents’ committee led by HA Manley raised £751. The KCOBA raised over £2,000 for the purchase of the organ and school furniture. The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel provided £350. The New England Company, the world’s oldest missionary society, provided £220 and the boys raised £200. A loan of £2,000 from the diocese was quickly repaid.
Bishop Gibson, a great music lover, was not a musician. However, the second master, Douglas Forrest, was a good tenor/baritone, a pianist and a good organist. Through their influence, Kingston College has developed a strong musical tradition in church music, which has been the basis for the successful careers in classical, church and popular music of many well-known Jamaican artists.
Audley Davidson, the current director, who took charge of the choir in August 2008, said The Sunday Gleaner that “When the school was founded, the era of radio and television had not yet arrived. Live concerts were the only means of presentation, and the Church was the most organized major source of musical activity in the whole country. Since World War II, the world has experienced a revolution in communication and choirs are under great pressure to survive outside of their roles as leaders of church services. The KC Chapel Choir was Kingston’s most renowned school choir, and in the years immediately following independence in 1962, attending its concerts was considered a social duty.
There have been seven conductors, including Donald Morris, Barry Davies, Wayne Moore and Gordon Appleton. Interestingly, Donald Morris was the first Jamaican director and the first former chorister to rise to the choir’s direction. He had been trained by Davies and succeeded Gordon Appleton in 1976.
At first, the choir sang mainly at chapel services during the week and occasionally on Sundays. However, the choir has ventured beyond the walls of St. Augustine’s Chapel over time. Today, the choir has increased its visibility with an average of around 45 performances per year, the highlight being the annual Christmas concert season.
Overseas tours were added in the 1980s with tours to the Cayman Islands, New York and Miami. In 2012, the choir toured Washington, D.C., performing on the grounds of the National Cathedral as part of the official program in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence.
The choir has made a number of recordings and has also made several appearances on local television, appearing almost every year at Christmas since the mid-2000s.
In the 1970s, the Kingston College Chapel Choir was elected to the St Nicholas Guild of the Royal Schools of Church Music, the first Jamaican choir so elected. During this time, the choir also recorded Christmas carols for use by the BBC in its worldwide broadcast.
To celebrate the choir’s 60th anniversary, the renowned Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford presented joint concerts with the Kingston College Chapel Choir. The choir has also performed with other guest choirs from the UK and North America. In December 2010, the Postmaster General issued a $60.00 postage stamp featuring the Kingston College Chapel Choir.
Every year since 2012 (except in 2014), the choir takes part in the examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), regularly obtaining distinctions and merits.
In October 2018, the choir received a Silver Musgrave Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Music. The Musgrave Prize is one of the oldest such prizes in the Western Hemisphere and was first awarded in 1897.
Under Davidson’s direction, the choir’s repertoire was expanded by adding and commissioning choral arrangements of contemporary and Jamaican popular music while maintaining the fine tradition of sacred music.