February 2007

Father Stan Fortuna
February 28, 2007 Ricoh Coliseum Toronto
South Bronx reverend a musical Revelation
by Sebastian Cook with Photos by Roger Humbert

Father Stan Fortuna’s show, as part of the You Are The Light of the World Youth Rally at Ricoh Coliseum, had been something of a hot potato amongst us reporters. After they hear about what went down, it’s not a stretch to imagine we’ll be fighting over who gets to cover it next time.

Known as “The Rappin’ Reverend” (which doesn’t cover the half of it, really) Father Stan’s press kit had more articles than any I’d yet received, by a considerable margin at that. He is most widely known of late for his groundbreaking and, controversially to some, faithful hip-hop; his latest CD with Scola Tristano — a trio inspired by the late free-jazz piano innovator Lennie Tristano in which Fortuna plays bass alongside Peter Prisco (guitar) and Peter Scattaretico (drums) — was released on Universal Music Portugal. And then, one listen through the CD and this became all about the music, not the message.

He appeared on stage, in his gray robe and flowing ponytail, following a set from an indie-rock artist named Matt Devine. He quickly tuned his bass harmonically and exhorted, “What’s up Toronto?!?”; his speaking voice sounds uncannily like Joe Pesci, all South Bronx right down to the “youze guys”. “Thank you and thank God for you”, he preached before introducing his first song as a prayer and launching into a sermon of the strings, a funky slap-and-pop rhythm. The combination of jazz-funk bass and such a soulful, spiritual high tenor vocal was a wonder to behold. Almost immediately, the crowd began clapping along. The first tune came to a close with a flamenco flourish.

Then Father Stan began looping a gospel-jazzy bass line, and dropped his first hip-hop flow. With a perfect sense of cadence and breath control and such innovatively structured wordplay, he had the 'skillz' to lyrically hang with any rapper I’ve seen live. The irony of seeing a priest deliver such a skillful performance, in a genre such as hip-hop that’s known for everything but family values (as overblown, misguided and in some cases ignorant or even racist as that perception may be) added all the more power to the experience.

Adding classic old-school DJ scratches and percussive bass thumps to the mix, the next blistering rap engaged the audience in a call-and-response chorus:

“Your body is not your own.
Your body is the Lord’s.
The media has a bad plan.
Drag you down to the zipper zone.”

“Abstain and be free!” he preached to roars of approval that a cynical music reporter ought to be forgiven for not expecting at a hip-hop concert full of teenagers. “Pray for self-control,” he continued in perfect rhythm. “I got you all singing, that means we’re family.” Amen.

The next tune featured an astonishing range of musical talents — a Latin hip-hop bass beat, Latin lingo with soul and scat interludes, and beat boxing that would have impressed all of the leading Toronto beat boxers I know such as mc enlight and Jugular. To close the show, Father Stan dropped a Stevie Wonder-meets-Spearhead funk bomb of a hip-hop joint with a chorus of, “You think that you the only one that’s gotta suffer? Uh uh.”

It was the perfect lyrical ending to a show that inspired and challenged everyone who heard it and was paying attention.

This year, Father Stan marks his 20th year in the priesthood, as part of the Community of Franciscan Friars of Renewal, in the South Bronx. 100% of profits from his music go towards helping his mission and at-risk youth. It is my hope that his work continues to reach people, not only Christians but everybody who believes in the power of music to bring about dialogue, positive change and indeed renewal.

Word up, Father Stan. I hope we’re able to get that midnight jazz mass happening the next time you drop by our ‘hood.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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