It was the perfect Wayback Wednesday treat from National Artist for Music, Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, when he posted a decades' old photo of very young, innocent-looking kids, who we know as the first batch of the Smokey Mountain—Tony Lambino, Geneva Cruz, Jeffrey Hidalgo, and James Coronel.
Mr. C wrote the back story on OPM Archive’s Facebook page: “In the summer of 1989, we ran an audition at the Music School of Ryan Cayabyab looking for young singers aged 12-14, and found 8 finalists who underwent almost 2 months of training in singing and dancing. When the training ended, we chose the final members of a group of teeners who ended up as the 1st batch of Smokey Mountain.”
Before these four kids came out of the stage garbed in literally ripped clothing, echoing the clothes of scavengers in Smokey Mountain, they did go to the place they were then about to represent, said Mr. C.
“The first thing we did when we had the group completed, we all went to Smokey Mountain in Tondo. We all went up the garbage heap. It’s a mountain. Ang baho grabe. Sobra,” the award-winning composer and lyricist recalled to Push in 2019. “To the point that the next day when we entered the car, it still smelled that way.”
These young kids, innocent as they may look in the above pic, brought to the airwaves and the world stage some of the Maestro’s most meaningful hits, tackling poverty, children’s rights, the plight of overseas Filipino workers, the environment, patriotism, and other socially relevant themes.
The original group’s stint lasted only for a year as Jeffrey and Tony decided to pursue formal education, while Geneva chose to build a solo career. But before the batch disbanded, they were able to perform at the United Nations World Summit for Children in New York, allowing the rest of the world to hear the voice of the Filipino youth and the beauty of Philippine music.
Thirty years after this pic was taken, how have the kids been?
Her rendition of “Mama,” about a child longing for the love of a parent working overseas, was heartbreaking. “Kailan,” about a girl’s yearning to be noticed by her crush, still evokes the romantic thrill of young love. Geneva giving justice to both pieces at such an early age just goes to show her talent was way beyond her years.
Geneva, of course, comes from the illustrious Cruz clan, which explains her talent for music. She had always loved performing, she once told Rappler, so much so that she joined several contests as a kid, including Little Miss Philippines and Bagong Kampeon. The audition that changed her life was for Smokey Mountain.
After Geneva left the group, she gained international acclaim after representing the Philippines at the Voice of Asia Song Festival in Kazakhstan, USSR, where she won the Grand Prize. She sang “Mama” in the said competition.
This was followed by successful solo albums—“I Like You,” and “Ang Gaan ng Feeling”—which gained double platinum and platinum status respectively. The iconic song “Anak ng Pasig” won the Best Pop Song award at the 1992 Catholic Mass Media Awards, and eventually spawned a movie starred in by Geneva with Raymart Santiago in 1993.
Year 1998 marked a transition for the singer-actress, as she unleashed a sexier image. A powerhouse performer, Geneva continued to produce albums, made waves in the concert circuit, and appeared in a string of movies and TV shows.
Geneva was married twice—first, to Introvoys drummer Paco Arespacochaga for five years, and second, to TV host KC Montero, for six years. She got engaged to Filipino-Australian Lee Paulsen in 2013, but the relationship didn’t work out. The single mom has a son with Paco (Heaven, now 24) and a daughter (London, six) with Lee. According to reports, Geneva is currently dating Nikolaus Booth, a Filipino-American concert producer who works with the US Marines in Virginia.
Before her homecoming early this year, she was based in the US with her children for six years. There, she worked as a certified nutritionist and spokesperson for Image Spa M.D., a weightloss clinic, and also performed in shows and concerts.
Geneva was hoping to resume her singing and acting career in the Philippines this year but plans to start filming were pushed back due to the pandemic. In recent months, she has done song collaborations with her cousins Donna, Sunshine and Sheryl, which were published on their social media accounts.
Tony’s training with the Ateneo Boys Choir and 14K (a group also formed by Maestro Ryan) was a key asset to Smokey Mountain. His original rendition of “Sabihin Mo,” a song about Filipino pride, remains as inspiring today as when we first heard it.
As the group gained some measure of early success on the international stage, Smokey Mountain was getting offered recording contracts in the US and Europe. This opportunity, however, required the members to be homeschooled, an arrangement Tony and his parents were not agreeable to.
“The decision was, maybe I was too young to be uprooted,” he shared in an interview with ABS-CBN in 2018. “I resigned from the group and decided to stay in school.”
The outcome did work out favorably for Tony. He graduated with a degree in Communication, cum laude, from Ateneo de Manila University. He was an Aquino Scholar and named one of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP) in 1999.
He did eventually live abroad for a while when he completed graduate studies in Political Communication from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Public Policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which he attended as a Fulbright Scholar and Osmeña Fellow.
The succeeding years saw Tony carving a career in government service. His four-year term as Sangguniang Kabataan chairman of Barangay Loyola Heights in Quezon City allowed him to test the waters.
He later on joined the Arroyo administration, working under Executive Secretary Renato de Villa on decentralization policy, and Presidential Adviser Paul Dominguez on regional development. His profile in the Department of Finance website reveals that he served as a government specialist at World Bank in Washington D.C. There, he was tasked to help reformers in Asia, Africa and Europe and enhance their effectiveness as change-agents.
Coming back home after that stint, he served as communication head of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Laguna, and then as head of public policy of Ayala Corp.
It was through his former boss—Paul Domingez, the brother of incumbent Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez—that the governance specialist was enlisted to help the then incoming Duterte administration in 2016 to concretize its agenda through townhall consultations.
He was sworn into office on May 15, 2018 as the assistant secretary of the Strategy, Economics, and Results Group (SERG) of the DOF, a position he holds to this date.
His Instagram account says Tony has a 13-year-old daughter.
Jeffrey’s initial foray into singing started with the group 14K when he was nine. He was eventually transferred by Mr. C to Smokey Mountain where he got to take on one of the group’s most popular and enduring love songs, “Can This Be Love.”
In an interview with MoneySense, Jeffrey described his stint with Smokey Mountain as the busiest period of his young life as the group traveled all over the world to perform. After the group disbanded, Jeffrey took a break for a year before signing up with Viva to launch a solo career.
His succeeding years in show biz produced several albums where one can find the hits “When I Met You” (a revival of the Apo Hiking Society song) and “Ang Ganda Ganda Mo.” He also won the Bronze Award for the New Singer Competition in the Shanghai Asian Music Festival in 1999.
Jeffrey enjoyed occasional acting stints, too, in “Nars,” an independent film about Filipino nurses, “Biak na Bato,” where he played the role of a miner, and the sexy stage play, “All About Men, The Penis Talk” in 2004. These exposures allowed him to discover his interest in directing, such that in 2009, he decided to take up a short course in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy’s satellite school in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
He later on dabbled in directing music videos and reality shows for local and cable channels. His debut film was the 2015 drama thriller “Silong,” which starred Piolo Pascual and Rhian Ramos. One of his recent directorial projects is GMA-7’s 2019 political romantic comedy series “TODA One I Love,” starred in by Ruru Madrid and Kylie Padilla.
Jeffrey graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of the Philippines and placed 11th in the board exams.
People will remember the young James for his anime hairstyle, “Kahit Habang Buhay,” a duet with Chedi Vergara (from Smokey Mountain Batch 2), and da iconic tropical ditty, Da Coconut Nut. James stayed on with the group after Geneva, Jeffrey, and Tony left, welcoming the second batch composed of Chedi, Shar Santos, and Jayson Angangan. The group had a busy international career until it disbanded in 1995.
James released a solo album in 1997, showcasing songs that were also produced and arranged by Maestro Ryan. His soft and passionate interpretation of “Sa May Bintana” earned him the crooner tag. It would also be his final offering before he bowed out of show biz.
Ricky Lo once mentioned in his column that James co-owned with the maestro the rights to the songs of Smokey Mountain. This was confirmed by a Push TV video published three years ago, where James was present during a contract signing for the official distribution of Smokey Mountain songs by Star Music.
James seems to shun media attention as there have been no news about him in the last several years. He wasn’t able to join the group’s virtual reunions this year due to work commitments. Unconfirmed reports said he runs call centers in the USA, Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka.
Photos from the Facebook account of OPM Archive, an initiative to keep the history and legacy of Original Pilipino Music alive.