After 24 years and worldwide acclaim, the Louisville Leopards have nowhere to call home
All this talent, worldwide acclaim and no place to call home, the Louisville Leopard Percussionists need a change of beat.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Pint-sized percussionists and little drummer boys and girls -- the Louisville Leopard Percussionists have heard it all in the past year.
The kid musicians are riding a musical rift of celebrity.
Fame came after a rehearsal video of the group playing a Led Zeppelin mashup went viral. More than five million people viewed the clip when Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page shared it on Facebook with the post, “too good not to share.”
The teens and tweens with talent gained more praise when a rendition of “Crazy Train” brought in a personal letter and a $10,000 check from Ozzy Osbourne, and pop star Ariana Grande surprised a Leopard with a $15,000 scholarship.
“I am not sure if I would have gotten to go to college before," recipient Audestie Butler said. "I want to play music forever.”
Yet after a huge 2015, the group hit a sour note.
“We were told 'all right you've got two weeks. It's time to go',” Artistic Director Diane Downs said.
It left the Louisville Leopards homeless.
“It baffles me that, locally, people still don't know who we are. On the international level and in the music scene and education scene, people know us. But locally, we're still little orphan Annies,” said Assistant Director and Original Louisville Leopard Brittany Lee.
The Leopards used a building off 3rd and York Streets in downtown Louisville for practice and storage space for seven years. It was temporary space leased at a discount rate as long as the property stayed on the market. The building sold at the end of 2015.
Now the Leopards practice in a space at 1st Street and Broadway. It sits between a homeless shelter and a freeway underpass. Downs said it’s not the most ideal location for children and still just temporary.
“One of the reasons we can't stay permanently is JCTC is buying up property around its college, and our landlord has said they've asked about this building, and pretty soon it’s going to go too,” Downs said. “I don't want to get put out again. I want to find a place to go.”
For Downs, finding a place proves much harder than it sounds. The 60 children in the group range from 7 to 14 years old. They need storage for all their instruments, practice rooms, a performance space and the ability to sound proof. And there’s always the issue of money.
Downs said they can pay for a space, just not $2,000 a month, which is the going rate for a space that the group needs.
Being a “Leopard” offers the young kids more than recreation.
“It makes me feel peaceful and whole, and without music, I don't know what I would do,” 6th grader John Woodhouse said.
The group survives on tuition, fundraising and donations, essentially paycheck-to-paycheck with a budget of about $100,000 a year. It's part of the magic of the group. Downs doesn't pick child prodigies. She rocks with that everyday child.
No sheet music, no experience required.
“That’s what (Downs) always says, don't just play the notes, play the music. Feel it,” Leopard student Margaret Keller said.
The crash of cymbals, the ringing tones of xylophones and the infectious laughter of happy children fill even a temporary space.
The families pay what they can. Some $80 a month, others nothing at all. Downs wouldn’t have it any other way.
“These kids are the loves of my life," Downs said. "I don't have kids because I'm supposed to do this.”
The Louisville Leopards started 24 years ago when Downs, a full-time teacher, found a box of instruments in a closet while looking for construction paper.
“We've produced some pretty good musicians,” she said humbly.
The list of Louisville Leopard alumni includes Hannah Ford Welton, who went on to become a drummer for the recently-passed music icon Prince.
"I wouldn't have found my love for music as young as I did if it wasn't for Diane saying ‘hey, you want to learn?'," Welton told NBC's Today Show.
Downs quietly hopes 14-year-old Butler, her student who won that $15,000 scholarship, will be the next "Leopard" to make it big,
Over the past seven years in the group, she has learned to play marimbas, xylophone, congas, keyboard, drums and the steel pans.
Butler, the daughter of a single mother living in Newburg, said the Leopards help keep her out of trouble.
“I like music because, sometimes, when I can't express what I am feeling, music says it for me,” Butler said. “Like when my mom and dad broke up, I play music. It gets all my emotions out.”
Over the last two decades, the Louisville Leopards have played in New York, Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Most recently, they performed at a TED Talk and entertained the Royal Family.
But for Downs, big "gigs" don’t matter. “You know when you see these little kids really digging into the music and enjoying what we're doing, that's why we do it,” Downs said
All this talent, worldwide acclaim and no place to call home, the Louisville Leopard percussionists need a change of beat.
If you'd like to contact the Louisville Leopards to help with space or donations, click here.
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