“We were on a snow day and I’m sitting around kind of bored, thinking, ‘I need something to happen.’ Next thing my email started to blow up — just ding-ding-ding, one after the other.” Founder and Artistic Director of The Louisville Leopard Percussionists, Diane Downs chuckles as she begins telling me the story of how sudden fame found the group. “I thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’ I get into my email and they’re all YouTube comments. One said, ‘So cool that Jimmy Page shared this on his Facebook.’ So I get on Jimmy Page’s Facebook and there we are.” Downs was stunned.
The Leopards, a youth ensemble, from Louisville, along with Downs, had been tossed into a whirlwind. What commenced with Page sharing a video of “cute” kids deftly playing a Led Zeppelin medley in a sea of percussion instruments has changed their lives. But these are more than adorable kids — they are skilled musicians and they need a new home.
“Maybe it is bigger than I think. I just like it because the kids feel like rock stars and they deserve it.”
The fandom didn’t stop with Page. Their Zeppelin video has been viewed over four million times. Ellen DeGeneres and Questlove Gomez of The Roots, amongst others, heaped praise on the group. Within the last few months, their video for Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” found its way to Oz himself, who responded with a personal note and a donation to their program.
A small non-profit, the group was formed 22 years ago with the aid of happenstance and a school closet full of forgotten musical equipment.
“I found these instruments, asked the kids if they wanted to do a concert and we played a PTA meeting,” Downs shares. She had no inkling that the group would become more than an extracurricular activity.
The group played at the school until the passing of its principal. Downs moved to a new school to teach and filed for the group’s federal non-profit status, freeing it from the fate of being a school program. The Louisville Leopard Percussionists as a citywide youth ensemble became a reality.
The love of music often starts with childhood. For Downs her foray into music wasn’t a choice. She recounts her own youth with a musician mother who expected her daughter to follow suit.
“When I was growing up, my mom was a bluegrass musician, she’d sit at the kitchen table playing banjo. She didn’t ask me, do I want to get in band. She asked me, ‘What instrument will you be choosing?’” Downs laughs. “It wasn’t like I really had a choice; I was going to be in band, which was fine with me. Music took me to Jamaica. I quit school for a year, went to Jamaica and taught — and I really liked teaching kids. Music has been around me. It’s kind of like what I know.”
Downs understands that music is the connective tissue between the world and the meaning we make in our lives. We process our love, anger and sadness — usually with the aid of song.
“There’s been so much research done about the good it does for kids — makes them think, makes them more tolerant. It makes them more accepting. We want to build good humans like that.”
Teaching young people how to interpret and express the world around them aids in their ability to make choices that will benefit their lives and, Downs hopes, the lives of others. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘When you are the rulers of the world, you have to think what this experience has done for you and make sure other kids get to do this.’”
Coming from all over the city, this is a diverse group, and cultivating their talents takes great patience and skill. Many of the kids come to the group without musical training.
“We don’t audition them based on talent at all. The way they get in the group is, the older kids teach at our summer camp and they keep their eye out for kids they like. They kind of pick their replacements.”
Downs is quick to defend the value of a youth-centric musical education for children. Humanity shares a deep cultural connection through music and creativity across political and socioeconomic lines that needs continued development. She feels it is integral.
“We need these kids to realize the power of music and how important it is — what it does for you. It’s not just about playing a song or playing an instrument. It’s about working together. Working with other people to create something beautiful. If we get rid of all these art programs, we’re totally stifling creativity and there’s just going to be a bunch of boring, dry, gray people.”
Proof that the experience with youth groups has a lasting impact. Downs points to some of her ex-Leopards. A couple of have graduated to full time careers in the music industry. The tUne-yArDs Dani Markham and Hannah Ford-Welton (drummer for Prince’s 3rdEyeGirl.) serve as homespun inspiration for the kids. Seeing famous Leopards gives them hope.
“It means we might have a better life with Leopards, too. What happened to Hannah could happen to us,” shares Toby Hudson who, at age 8, is one of the younger Leopards.
Nine-year-old Leopard, Harris Galijatovic says of Welton, “It’s cool that Hannah is a former Leopard because Prince took notice of us.”
Other cities have also noticed and are clamoring to start similar programs. When asked if she’d been contacted by other groups Downs answers excitedly: “I’m helping groups all over the place. I could write a method book but you’re not going to be able to figure out the way I do stuff. You can’t write groove, you have to feel grove. The music that’s written down — that’s just a guide. I want people doing this but they need to do it their own way not my way.”
The Leopards represent the best of what happens when kids are given space and time to bloom.
“It’s fantastic and I can’t imagine life without it,” says Raina Coffey, an effervescent 11-year old member whose favorite musicians are Joan Jett and ex-fellow Leopard Hannah Ford-Welton.
As we end our conversation, Downs is reflective about the past two decades of Leopard history. It’s easy to hear from the quiver in her voice that she is moved by her work. This is why the campaign for a new practice space is integral: “Don’t underestimate kids. Don’t underestimate what they can do. If there’s a desire to do it, they’re going to pull it off. You’ve got to believe in them. They’re amazing.”
The Leopards have to leave their current practice space by December 31 and are working diligently to secure a new home in Portland. You can help the Leopards in their fundraising efforts by donating at louisvilleleopardpercussionists.com. A crowdfunding campaign is coming soon and will be announced on the site as well.