“We can’t be stuck in 16th century harmony mindset and judging 21st century music. Therefore, each person needs to be honest with themselves as far as this is concerned, do what is best for our art form and not only for the paycheck.” Leon “Foster” Thomas
WST - You've been there, seen it, done it... What's different this year - 2012?
Leon - “There is a huge difference is the quality of “Pan Songs” to choose from. It seems like some folks are doing their homework. Hopefully they will continue to get better.”
WST - Is Panorama killing creativity as it relates to the creation of classics that will represent this generation of Pan musicians?
Leon "Foster" Thomas
Leon - “I hear this question far too often about Panorama killing pan and it’s creativity. Panorama is just one event that happens once a year. What happens to the other events, if any, and the rest of the year? So to say one event is killing pan or depressing our musical creativity is a statement I totally disagree with. It’s a competition and competitions have their pros and cons; I think that being competitive helps bring out the best in an individual/s.
“The problem I have is that we are not honest enough to let some of these big name bands and arrangers know that their arrangements are not good enough. In the last ten years there were bands that won the competition with extremely sub par renditions, which is a point that is shared and expressed by many pan enthusiasts. This forces other arrangers to ignore their own creative self and produce a sub par arrangement with hopes to achieve the win of a panorama title like the others have. Everyone wants to win, but Gopaul’s luck isn’t Sepaul’s luck. Thelonius Monk once said: “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing. Even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” A great example of this is Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and Phase II. Phase II’s style of music was not fully accepted for a while, but now they are winning Panoramas with pretty much the same formula.
On a flip side, some arrangers forget one simple element, which is, “The Spirit of Carnival”. You can’t go to a classical competition and not respect the elements of that genre, same thing goes for Jazz, Pop, Reggae, Latin, etc…. Some of us feel that because we went to college/university, we need to put everything we’ve learned in our panorama arrangement and leave the spirit of Carnival in hindsight. A music degree does not state that you are better than anyone, fore in actuality, we are learning and studying music of folks, the majority of which, have never even been through the gates of a university.
So I will say this: I can’t destroy the bridge I’ve once crossed to get to where I am now. At some point in time I will need to revisit my past to revive myself to be better off in the future.”
WST - What has to be done immediately for there to be progress?
Leon- “There needs to be a better sense of honesty and accountability from the Pantrinbago body, judges, bands and arrangers with regards to our music. The judges are often targeted because of the outcome of the panorama. Therefore, Pantrinbago needs to start taking an initiative to help equip the judges for this task. Perfect example: Every year bank systems and operations are updated, therefore, bank officials are sent to do courses to acquaint themselves with the new programs. The same thing needs to be done with the judges of panorama; Have whoever is interested in judging this competition take a course that would acquaint and equip them with the upgrades/new strides in music. We can’t be stuck in 16th century harmony mindset and judging 21st century music. Therefore, each person needs to be honest with themselves as far as this is concerned, do what is best for our art form and not only for the paycheck.
Pantrinbago should also host forums in collaboration with all the universities that offer a degree program in steel pan; where the winning panorama tunes are dissected and discussed for upcoming arrangers to understand the components of a winning piece. By doing this, it will put pressure on the arrangers to produce their best at ALL times which will in turn make panorama more than just a unique event, but also, one of unique musical quality.”
WST - What are your greatest concerns as it relates to the art form?
Leon - “My greatest concern is the future of the steel pan art form in its country of origin. Pan will have a great future outside of Trinidad and Tobago. Our governments continue to disrespect the player and the instrument. Pantrinbago doesn’t seem to be taking an interest in the art form, but rather is more interested in personal gains. I am scared to hear “Pan used to be” instead of “Pan is.””
WST - What are your feelings on all the young people moving into the arrangers' chairs this year?
Leon - “I think it’s great! It means that the Steel Pan art form will carry on long after the greats are gone.”
WST - What are you most proud of as it relates to pan?
Leon- “I am proud of the impact and presence we have created on a global scale. More countries and cultures are being exposed to this fabulous Art form. Notice I keep saying “Art form” instead of just “Pan” because it’s everything collectively, the pan does not play itself, nor did it get around the world by itself. With more support (especially from it’s country of origin) and marketing we can get even further.”
Phase II Pan Groove
WST - What has most disappointed you in Pan?
Leon - “That we keep letting other folks dictate and walk all over us while we stand with a silly smile on our face. Why do we accept the name “Steel Drum”? Granted that it came from an oil drum, but the name chosen by our predecessors is Steel Pan. There should not be any compromises on that. We don’t call all other instruments by different names. Therefore, we should demand the same respect for ours. Be proud your name and yourself.
Also, I believe that many Trinbagonians are not lovers of our culture until we migrate to a foreign country. It’s sad that in Trinidad and Tobago folks are claiming the culture of another country (India, Africa, China etc….) and never sought him or herself out with respect to the culture they were born of.”
WST - Name two things in Pan that are totally intolerable and must change immediately?
Leon - “Respect and Marketing of it.”
WST - What do you listen for in a Panorama piece - as a performer and as an arranger?
Leon - “I listen for really good creative music. Music that will wow me. We have many capable artistes to achieve that. I listen for the development of the counter melody, modulation, cheeky lines, the cleverness of slipping in and out of modes and moods. I listen for the rhythm section; how well they drive the tune and how well the iron and drums lock into each other. I listen to music as an audience member. Therefore, the arrangements must keep me interested”
WST - What is the cultural significance of Panorama?
Leon - “The whole world pays attention to Trinidad and Tobago around carnival time, would you not want to market your product during that time? How can you expose a product without an audience? The voice of the Steel Pan is saying, “I am capable of anything and everything, acknowledge me, respect me. I have done great things and more great things are yet to come.” Carnival has created a forum for those words to be heard on a greater scale and that forum is called Panorama. Without that forum it has proven to be difficult for that voice to be heard. If anyone disagrees with that statement, check the ratio of folks flying into Trinidad and Tobago during carnival time compared to any other Steel Pan event. Imagine carnival without Pan?
Panorama has cemented its place in our Carnival heritage. If it’s not broke, let’s not try to fix it. Let us try to make it better. Remove it and you’ll see what happens. What is needed is for the pan folks to wise up and see the potential of the event on a marketing standpoint.”
Leon "Foster" Thomas - drummer for Phase II Pan Groove - Panorama Champions 2005
WST - You are a solo steel pan artist in your own right, arranger, composer, and drummer for the legendary Phase II Pan Groove; discuss these multiple hats in your own words.
Leon - “My father exposed me to everything; from drums, to choir music, to acting, piano and guitar music. Anything with the arts, he was involved in it, and whatever he did I wanted to be a part of.
I started playing African drums at the age of 3. So there’s always a love for the drums. As far as Panorama drumming is concerned, I am not the only drummer for Phase II. There are others that also get the nod to be the chief engineer of this legendary band such as the great Richard Bailey and Leason Jacobs. My first time drumming for Phase II, I was somewhere around 18-19 years of age and we did a gig at Hotel Normandy, Trinidad.
Before then, I played my first Panorama with Fonclaire in 1998 (High Mas) then 1999 for (Carnival is We) under Ken “Professor” Philmore. I later played for Invaders in 2000 (Celebration in Steel) and 2001 (Stranger) under Professor as well. I also had a stint with Courts Sound Specialists of Laventille in 2007 (Johnny).
My first panorama with Phase II was Trini Gone Wild, one of my favorites, if not the favorite tune I’ve ever played. It’s always an honor and a privilege to play with and for Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and to be a part of this musical tribute to Dr. Pat Bishop…I count myself very fortunate.
As a Jazz musician, I am able to express my capabilities of this musical style through our beautiful national instrument. There is nothing better than performing and putting joy in the hearts of many.
As an Arranger/Composer I consider myself rather fortunate to be blessed with the gift to create and write music that expresses how I feel on a certain topic.
As an Educator I am able to present a full package of these many talents based on my experience.
It’s all music.”
Leon “Foster” Thomas
Jazz Performing and Recording -
Educator and Composer/Arranger
Panist, Panorama Drummer Extraordinaire
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