Drumming up support
Percussionist Sean Thomas has formed the Ocala Steel Orchestra, Inc., which is open to all who want to learn the Caribbean steelpan, and an upcoming festival will raise funds for the endeavor.
Sean Thomas with a tenor pan and sticks at Tuscawilla Park, site of the International Jazz, Art & Blues Festival on April 30. [Supplied]
Music lovers of all ages in Trinidad and Tobago gather in town squares and community centers to take in and play steel drums, also known as the steelpans.
Ocala musician Sean Thomas, who was born in the southernmost Caribbean nation, hopes to import the communal steel drum experience of his Curepe hometown’s bustling music-and-dance nights via his new Ocala Steel Orchestra Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Its mission: “To empower individuals from all backgrounds with the opportunity to learn and appreciate the art of steel drum and percussion music, fostering creativity, self-expression, and community building.”
As a drummer for the Keith Caton Blues Band and host of the Ocala Arts & Entertainment podcast/YouTube channel, Thomas has been an energetic force locally. He has also supplied a backbeat to the poetry of Spoken Word Ocala and recruits Friday happy hour downtowners in weekly courtyard jams at the Marion Cultural Alliance’s Brick City Center for the Arts.
Thomas will be hosting the inaugural International Jazz, Art & Blues Festival, which takes over the Tuscawilla Art Park from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 30. Local Realtor and YouTube podcaster Steve Billington will emcee, and proceeds will go to the purchase of steelpan instruments and other Ocala Steel Orchestra needs.
The event commemorates International Jazz Day, an occasion dear to Thomas’ heart because he trained as a jazz percussionist under the tutelage of some jazz heavyweights.
After playing steel drums in his youth in Trinidad and graduating from school, Thomas took advantage of a two-year scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis and Wayne Shorter lent their expertise and influence to Thomas and the other youth in the ensemble.
“It was a really intense program,” Thomas said. “I studied with the great Max Roach and the great Alan Dawson, two of the best jazz drummers of all time.”
Headliners at the April 30 festival will include the Keith Caton Blues Band and the SeanTMusic Global Quintet, led by Thomas on drums, with Nolan Koskela Staples on bass, David Israel on piano, Edward White on guitar, and Paul Johnson on saxophone.
Games, bucket drumming, and local art and food vendors will also be featured at the festival, and raffle tickets will be available to win free appetizers at Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grill. Thomas said the restaurant donated an ample number, so your chances aren’t too shabby at winning one.
As far as running the orchestra goes, Thomas beamed about the capable team working with him.
The Ocala Steel Orchestra board of directors backing Thomas as CEO and founder includes secretary Julie Mancini, a photographer and former executive director of the Dunnellon Chamber of Commerce; Keith Caton, owner of Rainbow Realty Group and the Old School Studio, and guitarist/vocalist for the Keith Caton Blues Band (which features Thomas as drummer) as treasurer; and Gregory Pope, a former manager of engineering services at Genesis Regional Medical Center and bassist/vocalist in the Keith Caton Blues Band.
“I grew up in the steelpan community, and my dad used to make these instruments,” Thomas reminisced. “My dad’s mom was one of the first females to play the instruments in the world. So, I learned the steel drum from age 7, and this instrument helped me to be able to communicate with people, to meet people to perform, to do tours, to get paid, and to interact with people on a more mature level.”
Thomas wants to pay forward those self-managing skills necessary to underserved youth in Marion County. The idea goes back to when he began leading bucket drumming workshops at the Boys & Girls Club of Marion County in 2018.
“That whole concept and that pilot project made its way towards my setting up this steel pan orchestra,” he explained. “The idea of it is to create an orchestra just like what my dad did in Trinidad, here in Ocala, and really, to open the doors for all ages, all races, all sizes. We don’t discriminate, and we open the doors for everyone to come and experience what it’s like to play this instrument, and it’s going to be free—hence the nonprofit.”
Open to all for lessons, the Ocala Steel Orchestra will feature a performance ensemble, free workshops and lessons taught by Thomas, and it will provide a next step for kids who have already been participating in bucket drumming with Thomas. He emphasized that the bucket is a way for young students to play rhythms in harmony and unison with others.
“You may find that out of 50 members or students, there may be 10 that are excelling at a fast rate, as would happen in any classroom,” Thomas explained. “For the 10 that’s excelling, they are the ones that are going to move forward in doing performances.”
The percussionist added that he hopes the performance ensemble will inspire the students to try harder and claim a spot when they’re ready.
He also hopes that more multidisciplinary opportunities will blossom from the garden of rhythms he’s beginning to cultivate with the Ocala Steel Orchestra.
The International Jazz, Art & Blues Festival takes place from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 30, at the Tuscawilla Art Park, 213 NE 5th St., Ocala. For more information, visit ocalasteelorchestra.org.