Steelpan Virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas


David Kernahan

Leon Foster Thomas

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Leon Foster Thomas is an internationally renowned jazz musician and steelpan virtuoso. He was the winner of the World Steelband Music Festival’s Soloist and Duet competitions in 2002 and 2004, and has been featured at world stages such as New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Moscow International House of Music, and Kazakhstan’s International Festival of Contemporary Culture. His most recent studio album Metamorphosis, released in 2016, reveals his personal and artistic maturation. On April 24, Foster Thomas will perform at Oberlin College with OSteel at Finney Chapel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk briefly about your early experiences with the steelpan and how the instrument was introduced to your life?

The instrument is the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. I never liked the instrument; it never made sense to me. It was more the old folks playing it, and no young people playing it. They were into classical music, and I was not musically trained at that point — I was just into whatever was happening on the radio, so it didn’t feel current. Every now and again they would play between shows and local television, but my first real encounter with it was in 1993. I had been playing African drums since I was three years old, but when I was around 12 or 13, a friend invited me to play with the school’s orchestra; they were playing this popular calypso that blew my mind. That was my first bite, but I was too embarrassed about not knowing how to play. Every time the band would take breaks, I would borrow a pair of sticks and try to fiddle to see if I could get the right notes. That’s how I learned to play.

As you began making and writing music and publishing your two albums, What You Don’t Know (2010) and Metamorphosis (2016), how did you explore that part of yourself and your artistry?

I had a strong familial musical background; my father was a master drummer of folk music and African music, and my mother was a singer. Along with my siblings, I was thrust right into the arts. I was intrigued and trying to make up my own thing and my ignorance kind of led me to a lot of the things. I developed an ear. So, leading up to the first album and growing up in Trinidad, I realized there isn’t information about the music and the steelpan readily available. There is, or was, a big gap. We thought that in order to get people to believe the seriousness of the instrument and the craft, you had to play what people know. And partially, that’s a bit true, but also not true at all.

So going into the first album, I wanted to introduce people to the veracity of the steelpan; that it is capable of playing anything and it’s really a matter of acceptance. So I titled the first album What You Don’t Know, literally about what people don’t know about the instrument. I wanted to show that it played many different styles of music, from gospel to jazz to rock. But also, What You Don’t Know refers to my coming out as an artist, showcasing my ability to play. My second album is dedicated to my daughter, and I wrote all the songs because I was extremely happy to be a father, so it’s called Brand New Mischief. I think the idea of my inspiration came from just the thought of being a father at that point and just really submerging myself within the ideas of fatherhood and the miracle of childbirth. My third album, Metamorphosis, is about changing; it’s about my transformation as an artist and as a person. It’s about maturity. Just like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, my style is different. 

You often teach masterclasses and perform at universities. What does it mean to be able to teach and perform for the next generation of steelpan musicians? 

I’m honored to be part of a group of people coming from Trinidad to teach the instrument, because I don’t think people really take the islands seriously. Ultimately, that makes us doubt ourselves and other abilities. Historically and geographically, these stereotypes have affected the way we approach our work. When people imagine the islands — and steelpan players more specifically — it’s all Cool Runnings and all that bulls**t, to be very candid. We’re not given the credit for how much progress we have made and how much we have contributed to the world. So, being a part of a group of people that are teaching steel, or have some kind of influence on steelpan, I’m really honored to do that. It is an honor to have some role in showing the capability of this instrument and guiding the path of future musicians.

What do you feel is the future of the art form?

That’s where things get a little bit murky. I believe the future of the instrument is bright, but we’re still dealing with colonialism. I think it’s catching on like wildfire. When I go to Europe, you have pan all over the place and in the United States it’s really catching in schools. However, that’s not what I’ve seen in the Caribbean; it’s not a part of our curriculum, but I think it should be. We’re seeing a bit of a decline in steel there. In the ’70s and ’80s, you had hundreds of steel orchestras. I think our government system has to do a lot with pushing it. I think it has a lot to do with us believing in ourselves and believing in our traditions. Outside of Trinidad, it’s blossoming. However, there’s a bit of a dark side where there is still rampant colonialism.

To speak very candidly, and also very carefully, there are inequalities which exist in steelpan orchestras in the U.S. Most of the schools that have steel orchestras in the U.S. are not run by people who have a lot of knowledge or experience with the instrument. But they are teaching because they have a doctorate in percussion. So you have people that are teaching it and spreading it, but you’re seeing and hearing bad technique and a bad image of the instrument. It’s become very apparent that you don’t have many people who look like me, who are very experienced and have degrees and are arranging for bands all around the world, but still can’t get a teaching position or get the opportunity to lead steel orchestras in the U.S. We’re good enough to do masterclasses, but we’re not good enough to run your programs. That’s a big problem. We still have people that are not really qualified to run steel orchestras, so as much as I’m happy that the instrument is spreading, it’s also putting us back with regard to how the instrument should be played and knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument.

However, as dark as I might have made it seem, there are some really good players across the world — people who have spent time really understanding what the instrument needs for orchestration, and what it really means to understand the timbres and each section of the orchestra. It’s just about harnessing the beauty of the instrument. So part of my quest is to work with bands in the U.S. and internationally to show how we can really understand the instrument and get the beauty of it to come forward.