Leon "Foster" Thomas
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Leon "Foster" Thomas

Miami, Florida, United States | SELF

Miami, Florida, United States | SELF
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"Leon “Foster” Thomas - Now in a ‘Class of His Own’"


Everything seems to be “in a timing” for Jazz musician Leon “Foster” Thomas - from his chance romance with the steelpan – to his application to university – to his recent performance before United States Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama at Bank Atlantic Center, Florida.

From the age of three, the young Foster was already making his presence felt on the cultural landscape on the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago with the Katumba Drummers led by his late father Loderick “Rollo” Foster.

At age thirteen while still at San Fernando East Junior Secondary School he was invited by his pannist friend, Roger Charles, to share his drumming skills with the Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School Steelband for the music festival.


Leon ‘Foster’ Thomas (right) at the Callaloo Jazz Concert
with Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore (left)

Leon was on a short visit to Trinidad and took time out to be a guest on WACK Radio 90.1 FM’s “Pan Diaspora” - the monthly interactive feature which lends an ear to persons who contribute towards the promotion of the steelpan as an art form outside of its place of birth – Trinidad and Tobago. He explained to hosts D.J. Heshimu and Hollis Clifton that he could easily have gone to the University of Arizona had it not been for the goodwill of the mother of his close friend and fellow pannist, Khion De Las and that of Dr. Dawn Batson. This enabled him to be the recipient of a scholarship as a drummer to Florida Memorial University in Miami (FMU), Florida.

Prior to his teenage years, Leon revealed that he had no appreciation for pan or classical music. All he cared for was playing African drums. This was until he heard Roger Charles arranging a piece of music for Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School Steelband. The tune was sung by Calypsonian Baron (Timothy Watkins) entitled “Somebody.” That struck a note in him. It was so mellifluous that whenever the band took a break he (the drummer [Leon]) would grab a pair of sticks and pick the tune on the tenor pan. Thereafter the pan became his numero uno musical instrument.

Foster remembers his late mother, Hillouise Foster, telling him that his father used to play pan with Free French Steel Orchestra but he had never really seen the band or his father perform. This must have been his first influence in pan.

Leon’s panmanship has been influenced by ace pannists Ken “Professor” Philmore, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and the late Clive Bradley. Other local musical arrangers who influenced him include Roger Charles, Darren Sheppard, Ray Holman, Clive and Carlton “Zander” Alexander and Brian “Bean” Griffith. He is ever so grateful to the “Professor” who became his mentor since he heard him play at Queen’s Park Savannah in Trinidad in 1997 for Pan Ramajay. Foster recalls that “Pro” literally had the audience eating out of his hands. “Nuff respect” to Ken.

In 2002 Leon went to Trinidad to take part in the World Steelband Music Festival (WSMF) in the Soloist Category, and won. He returned to Florida to a rousing welcome as it dawned upon the institution that the world’s number one pannist was a student at FMU. This feat saw the photo of Leon, the victor grace the cover of the school’s music department’s course catalog for the next academic year. This drew immense respect for the pan and the pannist alike. Two years later he won the Duet Category of the WSMF with fellow student Aleah Nicholson.

At his graduation in 2005 he received the “Most Outstanding Student Award” in the music department. He was also instrumental in starting the “Sweet Tuesday Jazz Jam Session” which featured great musicians such as Lou Donaldson, Melton Mustafa, Pewee Ellis, and Ken “Professor” Philmore among others. This open jam session gave the students the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience as well as exposing people on campus to local and international talent.

Leon made time to do gigs whenever possible. On one such occasion at a gospel convention in Orlando, Florida, Foster played the piece entitled “I Believe I Can Fly.” He reminisced the audience being so moved that at the end of his performance there were vast numbers of people queuing up to get his autograph. That opened his eyes to the power of music. During his European tour with the American Gospel Choir people were eager to know what the instrument (pan) was and they thought his hands were moving like lightning. He often found himself having to educate his audience on the history of the instrument. In, lamentation Leon interjects of times, when he informs that the steelpan is native to Trinidad and Tobago, the question which often followed was, “what part of Jamaica is Trinidad ?”

To date Leon has produced one live Jazz album with his band Krossover Jazz and is currently working on his solo album to be released this summer. He has performed at countless jazz festivals, classical concerts and carnivals throughout the Caribbean, the United States and Europe. Foster has performed and worked with world–renowned artistes inclusive of James Moody, Nathan Davis, Mark Whitfield, Billy Taylor, Abraham Laboriel and Melton Mustafa.

As a composer, he wrote a piece for the late Shiron Cooper entitled “Call of the Amerindians” which gave her victory at the twenty–sixth Bi–annual Music Festival in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Again, Michigan’s Oakland University Steelband was the recipient of a grant for him to compose the music for their upcoming CD, “Chamber of Steel.”

Foster is currently the arranger for Miami Pan Symphony Steel Orchestra which has won the Annual Miami Carnival Bomb Competition for the last three years. The band comprises high school and college students of Caribbean descent. His vision for the future is to arrange for a conventional steelband in his native Trinidad as well as continuing to perform and compose.

Whenever he returns to Trinidad for carnival Leon has played for panorama with the following steelbands:
- Phase II Pan Groove twice, including once as their drummer
- Invaders
- Siparia Deltones
- Silver Stars
- Skiffle Bunch
- Courts Laventille Sound Specialist
- Simple Sound of Arima
- Fonclaire



by Hollis Clifton
Pan Diaspora Visionary - by Hollis Clifton Pan Diaspora Visionary


Discography

Sueanalo, Potpurri: Sam Henry and a Gathering of Friends, Chamber Of Steel, My First CD, Miami Pan Symphony Vol. 1

Photos

Bio

Jazz Pannist Leon "Foster" Thomas is carving a new path when it comes to the contemporary styles of jazz, especially concerning the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century. Winner of the 2002 World Steelband Music Festival Soloist category and the Festival's Duet category in 2004, Foster; as he is also called, is doing his part to expose music lovers to the versatility and many capabilities of this remarkable instrument. Awarded Florida Memorial University Musical Department's Most Outstanding Student in 2005, Foster has proven to be as versatile as his instrument of choice.
Born August 25th, 1981, in San Fernando, Trinidad, Leon the fourth of seven siblings started his musical journey at the tender age of three. Under the leadership of his late father, Loderick �Rollo� Foster, Leon worked his way playing African drums with the best drummers in Trinidad & Tobago, representing the country in Carifesta celebrations and also Desmond Tutu's visit.
Though, the Steel Pan is the National instrument of Trinidad & Tobago, Leon never had any interest for it. "I never liked the Pan, everytime it came on the television I would always change the channel to watch 'Price is Right' , or something else interesting," not knowing the passion he had in him for the instrument and music.
In 1993, Leon began playing the Steel Pan through his friend Roger Charles, the arranger for both Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School and Panasonic Connection Steel Orchestra at that time. At age 14 Leon played with Panasonic Connection and Fonclaire Steel Orchestra in his first National Panorama Competition. The National Panorama Competition, the super bowl of the steel pan, is the competition that every pannist dreams of winning. Leon Has done it twice, in the years 2005 and 2007, he was the drummer for both bands that won Trinidad and Tobago's National Steelband Panorama Competition, Phase II Pan Groove and Courts Sound Specialists of Laventille, respectively. Always using his family as his motivation for excellence, Leon completed school in Trinidad and enrolled at Florida Memorial University in 2001 as a music major with a concentration in Jazz and Percussion. While at the University, he traveled locally, nationally, and internationally giving workshops and concerts.
Apart from his playing, Leon is also recognized for his compositions. In 2003 he composed a piece, �Call of the Amerindians�, as his contribution towards raising funds for Shiron Cooper (now deceased) which won her the top prize at the 26th Biennial Music Festival held in Trinidad and Tobago. He is also the founder of "Sweet Tuesday's", Florida Memorial University's weekly jazz jam session. Going strong since 2004, "Sweet Tuesday's" has had musicians such as PeeWee Ellis, Lou Donaldson, Ken "Professor" Philmore from the Caribbean and the college's own Melton Mustafa grace its stage. Geared towards helping students utilize what they have learned in the performing arts, "Sweet Tuesday's" is a way of bringing the jam session to the students instead of them having to find their own.
Having performed at many Jazz Festivals, Classical Concerts and Carnivals throughout the Caribbean, the United States and Europe, Leon has performed and worked with great musicians such as; Len "Boogsie" Sharp, Carlton �Zander� Alexander, Francis Prime, H2o Flo, Winston Bailey �The Mighty Shadow,Ken �Professor� Philmore, Dolly Parton, Melton Mustafa, James Moody, Nathan Davis, Mark Withfield, Billy Taylor and Abraham Laboriel, just to name a few.
Currently Leon is the musical director for the Miami Pan Symphony Steel Orchestra, a steelband comprised mainly of students from both Middle and High Schools. Pan Symphony is a non profit organization that is not only geared towards promoting the culture of Trinidad and Tobago and the steel pan, but also mentors the youth, providing them with positive options away from the negativity of society and helping them to become better citizens of the world. Under his leadership they have won the Bomb Competition of both the 2005 and 2006 Miami Carnival.
Leon "Foster" Thomas is becoming a household name throughout the world. Who knows what lies in the future? Only great things from this musical genius. All will agree that the rest is and will be history.