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Hallelujah for Maria Alonzo
In a dark time when echoes of carnival soca contest with gunshots and the daily litany of abuse, greed, corruption and the culture of self, the recent Hilton tribute to Maria Alonzo, singer, teacher, mentor, selfless mother figure and inspiration to many Holy Name Convent Port-of-Spain alumnae, was a welcome beacon of light and a salutary reminder of the heights human beings can reach when motivated by love, faith and selflessness.
Older readers will be aware of Alonzo’s Goretti Group, a choir she founded at her alma mater, Holy Name Convent POS on returning from Australia in 1968, where she had taught in girls’ schools and serendipitously launched her singing career as resident singer at the Sydney Hilton. One apocryphal story has her placing second to the Bee Gees in a talent contest. It is evident that Alonzo was gifted with the ministry of music and that her legacy and soaring spirit are with us now and present in a new generation represented by the Maria Alonzo Goretti Group, a choir of current Holy Name Convent students formed only months after her death in 2016. As Charmaine Mohammed, member of the original Goretti Group and chairperson of the tribute’s organising committee remarked at one point “Maria, I hope you’re looking down on us, this is for you.”
Music has the power to heal and nurture anyone with ears to hear and an open heart.
Making music instils discipline, teamwork, dedication, empathy, precision and excellence. Maria Alonzo not only knew all this but lived it. Her tribute night reverberated with the lesson and example she gave to her many surrogate daughters, who still refer to her as affectionately “Moms.”
While the main component of the night was music from the Maria Alonzo Goretti Group,
local star tenor John Thomas, panman extraordinaire Dane Gulston accompanied by his show-stealing son Daniel, and original Goretti Group member Denyse Plummer, the many verbal testimonials repeated the same refrain: “A wonderful teacher, mentor and mom to us… a humanitarian and a leader… a true giver throughout her lifetime… Maria was love… intuitive and forward thinking,” committee members testified.
“A woman determined to give and make a change in everyone she touched,” wrote Charmaine Mohammed in her Ode to Maria.
These sentiments were echoed in a message from former Fatima students (Dale Mitchell, Brian Yorke (deceased) Derek Gay, Robert Lee, Steven Lue Qui, Clift Camacho, Robert Kerr, Warren Patrick) who joined the original Goretti Group in its early days:
“She was an adult who wasn’t afraid to reach down and out to youth to instil in them an abundance of confidence and positive self-esteem.”
Wendell Constantine, another Fatima old boy and Goretti Group member was present to swell the ranks of devotees.
The tribute (organised by a committee of original Goretti Group members: Chairperson Charmaine Mohammed, Meryl Lawrence Douglas, Anastasia Rivera, Colleen Selvon Rampersad and Wendy Derzaph) commenced fittingly with the Maria Alonzo Goretti Group.
Conducted by Celia Scott, original Goretti Group member and Alonzo’s friend of 45 years, they sang Alonzo’s composition Hear O Lord (the title track from the Goretti Group’s first album Sing Out My Soul) and Thank You.
The youngsters were joined by original Goretti Group members Barbara Critchlow, Lorraine Pouchet, Marlene Yeates, June Sargeant and Cheryl Ann Howard before a blessing by Father Girod and one of the many highlights of the night, a proclamation by Alderman Joel Martinez, the Mayor of Port-of- Spain, declaring July 9 Maria Alonzo Day in recognition of her example of selfless service, epitomised in her motto “If I can help somebody with a word or song, then my living shall not be in vain.” The date was chosen as it falls on the feast day of Maria Goretti patron saint of youth (who the choir was named for), which with divine synergy was also Alonzo’s birthday.
During a sumptuous buffet dinner, diners were serenaded first by the Maria Alonzo Goretti Group with pore-raising renditions of Hallelujah/Agnus Dei and an adaptation of Celine Dion’s I’m Alive, with a second course from tenor John Thomas singing Giro con me and Hope.
In the spirit of the night Thomas volunteered his vocal talents and provided the sound system, lighting, and stage backdrop.
In the ensuing interlude a video shot by Leyvin Viscuna and produced by the Viscuna Brothers brought old footage of Alonzo performing, newspaper clippings and reminiscences about the presiding spirit to the screen. The Gulstons gave an electrifying, virtuoso performance on shimmering pans, Dane’s Down’s Syndrome son Daniel stealing hearts with the pure joy of performing, a perfect example of Alonzo’s ministry, which prompted a spontaneous standing ovation.
The crescendo of the night was delivered by Denyse Plummer, an original member of the Goretti Group, who volunteered “because of who Maria was.”
In signature powerhouse style, her Barbara Streisand medley (I Believe, Somewhere) and her own gospel composition There’s No Turning Back brought the house down and the entire company to its feet.
Charmaine Mohammed, glowing from the palpable positive energy invoked by Alonzo’s living legacy, thanked all who had worked so quickly and selflessly to make it all happen: the performers; the Viscuna Brothers; event planner Halcyon Sealey; Lisa Reyes Silva “for her beautiful custom designs and décor” and Vanessa Singh, Hilton Sales Manager and her staff.
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