On the road to Pan Alive with Rudo Forteau

By Oscar Wailo

Rudo Forteau

In my early years as a columnist for The Caribbean Camera, my most joyful moments were inspired by what we called “Caribana Season.”

Yes, for us, Caribana (now called Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival) was not simply the Saturday masquerade, but a full season when the calypso tents opened, steelbands gathered up their players for the Pan Alive competition and the mas’ camps began building mas’. We believed, and still do, that Calypso (kaiso), Pan and Mas’ were the three legs upon which the Carnival stood, and gave them equal play in our coverage.

Kaiso and pan were my first love and I relished my time covering the kaiso tents as the singers burnished their songs to compete for the Calypso Monarch crown. I had so much fun that the stories wrote themselves. Now I’m back with a pan story.

After a 20-year hiatus, when I fancied myself a pan player and had the nerve to play the tenor pan with Tommy Critchlow’s Pan Masters Steel Orchestra, I decided that now in my dotage, I would again try my hand. I must say that even though my earlier outing with Pan Masters gave me great personal satisfaction, Tommy with his customary blunt honesty, always described me as his only student who never finished a tune. Twenty years later, Tommy welcomed me back with this statement: “No more tenor pan you. Come in the back with me and the old men and play some guitar pan.” So here I am, a guitar man and “jamming down de place.” It’s an absolute blast.

This year I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Rudo Forteau, an extraordinary musician and arranger, who flew in from Trinidad to arrange and take Pan Masters through its paces on the road to Pan Alive, the ultimate Canadian steelband competition.

Any pan aficionado, on hearing his arrangement and watching him conduct his drills, will agree that Rudo is indeed extraordinary. And while Caribbean folk in their usual modest way refer to one associated with pan in one form another as a “pan man”, they end up selling our musical maestros short with such an offhand description. For if our maestros are to take their places in the pantheon of musicians the world over, it would be more precise to say the Rudos of this world are exceptional musicians, arrangers and composers whose instrument happens to be the steelpan. After all, nobody refers to Mozart as a “piano man.”

To stay with that connection, Rudo possesses the rare gift of “perfect pitch”; a gift shared by the likes of Mozart, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson and Beethoven. My research tells me that perfect pitch “is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.” In other words he can sing a named pitch. Generally, you’re born with it or have the gift enter your consciousness at a very young age.

Rudo comes to us complements of Pan Trinbago Association in Trinidad, the pan organization of the country that created this quintessential Caribbean musical instrument. He is the Chairman of Pan Trinbago Youth Arm. He is a “Cultural Ambassador” who goes anywhere pan is played. He is, in his words, “responsible for spreading the gospel of pan.” But lest Pan Masters be accused of bringing in a ringer to give it an advantage, Rudo Forteau will tell you that he has been coming to Toronto since 1995, and participated in all but two pan competitions.

He has played and arranged for many bands since the days when Pan Alive was called Panorama, which held its competition at Monarch Park Collegiate grounds. He worked with Jesse Ketchum Pan Vibrations, New Dimension, and has lent a hand to a number of band arrangers whom he has befriended during his many visits to Toronto. So Rudo’s Pan Alive roots in Toronto are as deep as the average participant in the competition.

This year, even as he gives the greater part of his soul to Pan Masters, he never misses an opportunity to share his skills with anyone who needs help. In this sense he is a true musician whose primary focus is musical excellence to be nurtured and shared with the people of the world.

Rudo Forteau is an exceptional musician, a perfectionist and a fierce competitor with the patience of Job, and has already performed a minor miracle: he has managed to teach me to play a song to the end. Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

So, in a few days we will walk the road to Pan Alive behind Rudo, our “Pan Piper.” Look out, Sojourner!

Photo Caption: Maestro Rudo Forteau at work