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MARIA'S MARATHON OF HOPE

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world, musicians everywhere stepped onto some fairly unusual stages in support of essential workers. Maria Manna from local 247 Victoria BC, an award-winning jazz, blues and gospel vocalist based in Victoria, B.C., was no exception. To express her gratitude and spread cheer, for seventy-five evenings straight, rain or shine, Maria performed two songs on her condo balcony and streamed them live on Facebook.

“It was my husband’s idea,” said Maria. “My performances had been cancelled. People all over the world were quarantined or hospitalized. The death toll was rising.  The first ray of hope among all the gloom was the Italian people nightly singing from their balconies. My parents are from small towns in Italy, so when Chris suggested I do the same, that was all the encouragement I needed.”

Before the pandemic, Maria was booked for two shows with Grammy-winner Diane Schurr, one in Victoria and the other in Edmonton. She was scheduled to attend a meeting in New York to launch the Canadian chapter of the Jazz Foundation of America. Her charity foundation, the BC Vocalist Society, had dozens of aspiring vocalists enrolled for the first workshop. She was in the midst of producing the musical theatre production Lady Day at Erickson’s Bar and Grill in Victoria and Its Amore, a musical theatre production she wrote. 

The first performer to livestream a gig from Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria, following a distressing conversation with a cousin in Italy, Maria decided to amplify her mission of cheer. In her cousin’s town of 10,000 people, nine people had died the day before. “She sounded like someone who felt doomed,” said Maria. “I knew I had to do something.” 

After translating Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” into Italian, she invited pianist Ashely Wey and bassist Louis Rudner to accompany her for a streamed online concert performed at Hermann’s. It was watched by thousands around the world, including many people in Italy.

Maria also performed in two JamKazam online concerts, one of which was a world-fest, with musician performing from their homes in real-time. As Maria phrased it, “We may not be able to touch each other physically, but we can still touch each other emotionally through hopeful words and beautiful music.”

For two-and-a-half months, Maria spent three hours each day selecting songs and rehearsing for her nightly performances. Each evening, she stepped onto her balcony and offered words of encouragement to her neighbors and online viewers. With her husband behind the iPhone camera, at seven p.m., she rang a cowbell with a wooden spoon generally reserved for stirring spaghetti sauce, thanked frontline workers, and sang two songs. “Rainy days were a challenge,” said Maria. “Standing under the big umbrella my husband purchased for my balcony performances, I had to hold the computer with the music tracks while singing. It was a bit of a balancing act.”

Always happy to share a stage, Maria invited other vocalist to join one of her nightly performances. On different evenings, Maureen Washington, Scott Clarke, Shai Thompson and Tim Kyle each sang a solo and then a duet with her.

Maria also took requests and did her best to sing the songs people wanted to hear. After each show, some with more than 4000 views, Maria acknowledged every comment made by her followers.  By her final performance, Maria had sung 165 songs in a variety of languages: English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese and Italian.

As Canada slowly reopened and British Columbia was about to embark on phase three of the pandemic, Maria decided to take a break from her nightly performances with the promise to resume should there be another spike in the pandemic. Wanting her seventy-fifth and final show to be one her thousands of worldwide viewers would remember throughout the summer, Maria invited local star Duncan Meiklejohn and her previous guest performers to join her for a streamed show on the patio of Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria.

Those who follow Maria Manna’s career aren’t likely surprised by her selfless acts to spread cheer, hope and love around the globe. As a result of her numerous humanitarian endeavors, Maria is a 2013 recipient of the Governor General Caring Canadian Award and a 2016 recipient of the Governor General Sovereign Medal. She’s also an inductee in the Alberta Music Archives.

When asked if she misses her nightly performance, Maria was candid. “I do, but the break is welcomed. I feel like I just completed a run of shows in Vegas.”  She laughed. “Of course, I would do it all again.”

To connect with Maria and view her streamed performances, visit her Facebook Page or her YouTube Channel.

Article by Joy Ross (Freelance Writer) [email protected]