Steel pan virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas: ‘Some people don’t think it’s a serious instrument’

The Trinidadian jazz ace garnered acclaim for his remarkable solo work, and has joined the 78-year-old steel band that inspired him. Now, his poignant new album is bringing everything back home

Laventille, high in the hills above Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, may be a poor part of Trinidad but it has historic cultural riches. Chief among them is Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, a name that speaks of a community battling extreme disadvantage. Active since the mid-1940s, the group is known for electrifying performances and the unwavering loyalty of its players. Some sign up for life.

“One of the members just celebrated his 81st birthday, and he’s been in the band since he was a little kid,” Leon Foster Thomas explains. A steel pan player who lives in London, Thomas has been rehearsing with “Despers” for their appearance at the steel band competition Panorama, a key part of Trinidad and Tobago carnival, which takes place in February every year. “It’s generations and generations of people [in the band]. I’m inside this thing now … It’s kind of surreal. This is heavy, just to get the call to work with them.”

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