Ernest Alstrom: An unsung musical hero
Celebrating our creative personalities
March 21, 2004
Conducting the Christ Church Diocesan Youth Movement Choir
One of the joys associated with conducting research for this series of articles on Guyanese creative personalities is the people I meet in the process.
Over the past months, I have received e-mails from children and relatives of some of the personalities whom I have written about. I have also met persons whose stories are so compelling that they deserve to be told as they help to illuminate other stories and provide a deeper appreciation of the place of cultural expression in the construction of Guyanese society.
One such story is that of Ernest Alstrom, who was born in 1926 to Miriam (nee Carr), a midwife and Robert Alstrom, a diamond merchant.
In conducting research for the recent feature on the Rogers brothers, I received an e-mail from Alstrom who told me that he was a member of the Georgetown Philharmonic Orchestra with Edward Rogers whom he considered "clearly the best clarinetist in the orchestra."
This connection was welcome, as I am trying to acquire more information on the British Guiana Philharmonic Society and its orchestra - the Georgetown Philharmonic Orchestra. So, I started a conversation with Alstrom via e-mail and later through an extended telephone conversation.
In one of his e-mails, referring to 1946, Alstrom wrote, "I distinctly remember Dorothy Taitt strongly objecting to my mother's thought of sending me, then a 19 year old, to work at the Mackenzie Bauxite Company. [One Saturday morning] Dorothy walked into my mom's bedroom uninvited saying my mom is mad to send me, a promising musician, away from the city and the orchestra and immediately got me a job with Bookers Radio."
Mrs Dorothy Taitt was the organizing secretary of the British Guiana Philharmonic Society.
By 1950, Alstrom was principal second violinist in the orchestra. Other violinists included John Bunbury, Carlos Innis, Osmund Kendal, Babsy Koulen, Frank Terril, Albert Vervuurt, Stanley Innis, Gwen Koulen, George Singh, Clairmonte Taitt, and Maurice Watson.
On the violoncellos were Lynette Dolphin, Frank Innis, Louis La Roche, and Harry Mayers. A majority of the string players in the orchestra were amateurs. The woodwind and brass players tended to be members of the British Guiana Militia Band.
The orchestra performed four major concerts each year at the Georgetown Town Hall. Its repertoire was primarily classical and was selected by Dorothy Taitt, Major S Henwood, and Vincent DeAbreu.
Alstrom's love for classical music was influenced by Fred Casimir, whose chamber orchestra (violins, cello, and double bass) performed regularly on VP3BG. His first music teacher was Mr Innis, a cellist with the Georgetown Philharmonic Society.
In addition to performing with the orchestra, Alstrom was active with choral groups. He was a violin soloist at Sunday afternoon concerts, led popular music ensembles, performed on the radio, and was actively engaged with Vivian Lee's music recording initiatives in BG during the mid-to-late 1950s.
By 1946, Alstrom was a member of Vesta Lowe's Choir, singing with stalwarts such as Arnold Adonis, Wilton Fitz Lawrence, and Fred Talbot. The choir performed classical music, spirituals, and arrangements of British Guianese folk songs.
As a result of encouragement by Mr Pollard, a youth organizer, Alstrom began training youth choirs. The first was the Comenius Youth Movement Choir.
According to Alstrom, "The last was the Christ Church Youth Movement Choir which, I am proud to say, I had singing many of my own choral music arrangements."
In 1949, Alstrom conducted the Comenius Youth Movement Choir, filling in for Mrs Ruby Harewood, who was on three months' leave. During that period, he organized a grand choral concert," featuring the British Guianese soprano Iris Grimes. The concert was held at the Moravian Church in Queenstown and the concert chairman was PA Cummings, Esq. Among the music performed by the choir were Alstrom's arrangements of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Let us Break Bread Together.
On an invitation, he became choir master and conductor of the Christ Church Diocesan Youth Movement Choir in 1950, moulding it into one of the leading choral groups in the city. The choir was founded by Mrs J Hunte.
During Alstrom's tenure as choir master and conductor, Stanhope Baird was the assistant choir master and accompanist. The sopranos included D Mingo, V Abrams, H Gaskin, E Clarke, C Bentham, E McAndrew, D Bishop, V Percival, and E Madieros. The altos included O & E Bentham, E Mingo, and S Lynch. The tenors included J McD Welch, C Lindo, R Bishop, and D Rafferty, and the basses were M Gittens, G Medas, W Persaud, R Harmon, W Hutson, and I Jones.
The popularity of the Christ Church Diocesan Youth Movement Choir is evident from its range of performances.
On Friday, December 29, 1950, the choir had a dominant role in the 'Welcome Concert' for the Nigerian prince, Eze Ogueri. The concert was organized by the Christ Church Branch of the Diocesan Youth Movement and the League of Coloured People and was held at the Christ Church School Hall. The choir performed a programme of Negro Spirituals arranged by Alstrom - Jacobs's Ladder, A Wheel in a Wheel, Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Let Us Break Bread Together. The concert chairman was Dr Claude Denbow, DDS.
In 1951, the choir performed in fundraising concerts for the Jamaica Hurricane Relief Fund. The choir sang at the 'Variety Concert' (September 7) organized by Norman Cameron and was the opening act at the 'All-Star Concert' (September 16) organized by internationally acclaimed Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar at the Plaza cinema.
In 1952, the choir was featured at a Sacred Concert sponsored by the Christ Church Provident and Friendly Society. At this concert, it performed Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, Listen to the Lambs, Good News, and O Morn of Beauty, arranged by Alstrom.
Alstrom was a popular violin soloist on the Sunday afternoon concert scene. His accompanist was the pianist, Kenneth Williams.
In 1953, Alstrom started to play the steel guitar, better known in those days as the Hawaiian guitar, for relaxation. He was introduced to the instrument by a relative from Agricola.
His cousin sent a person who was doing a correspondence course with Gibson's but was having difficulty with the instrument, to Alstrom for tutoring, given his proficiency and reputation as a violinist. Alstrom had never seen the instrument before and asked to be able to keep the instrument and some of the assignments for a week.
A week later, Alstrom had mastered the instrument. The student was so happy that he gave Alstrom an instrument as a gift, and this opened another dimension of Alstrom's musical life in British Guiana. He began to accompany performers on the "Ovaltine Show" on the radio.
This new popularity led to a three-month contract to perform on Radio Demarara with the Randolph Profitt Trio on Randolph Profitt's Waltz Time.
Vivian Lee then invited him to become the leader of the Gay Caballeros, a popular music band with a solid Latin American repertoire. In addition, Alstrom became actively engaged in Vivian Lee's VJ Records.
He accompanied Nesbit Chhangur on many of his recordings, including Bring Back My Daddy, I'm So Helpless I Could Cry, and There's No Room in My Heart. Along with Harry Whittaker, Alstrom accompanied crooner Billy Wade on If You Tell Me.
Meanwhile, at his job at Bookers Radio, Alstrom developed an interest in point-to-point radio communications and began to work on the radio network that connected the Booker Sugar Estate system.
Prior to joining Bookers Radio, he had studied electronics through the Hollywood Radio and Television Institute. In 1959, he was awarded a scholarship to study avionics engineering in the United Kingdom, and this brought his musical career to an end.
After graduation, Alstrom returned to British Guiana and served with distinction as Communication Superintendent for the Guyana Airways Corporation. In 1973, he left Guyana for Canada where he continued his career in aviation, serving as the supervisor of technical writers at De Havilland Aviation, Canada.
Alstrom's story provides a glimpse into the role choirs played for youth in the pre-independence era. Not only did they make sweet music, they helped to develop camaraderie.
Repertoires of the choirs show that Guyanese musicians were versatile and choir leaders were confident. Alstrom's story tells also about the popularity of concerts as social institutions. Looking at the names of concert chairpersons there is the suggestion that the concert scene did provide a platform for aspiring urban politicians - which is a line of inquiry to be followed in the future.
Although he no longer performs, Alstrom has a large music collection. He is married to Lynette (nee Allicock) and has three children - Ernest Terrence, Denise, and Michael. His daughter, Denise, sings in a choir in Canada.
Ernest Alstrom is a quiet man and is clearly an unsung musical hero.