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    Lights strung across the walls flash red, blue and green, a visual accompaniment to a rendition of “I Will Survive” that sounds more like a film score or musical overture than a couple dozen restless fourth- through sixth-graders, the advanced group of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists. In between turns, the extra-squirmy kids, some with hair in hues of purple and green or wearing leopard-ear headbands, brandish drumsticks and mallets. One kid jumps around with maracas. Another does a sort of Irish jig. Director Diane Downs, chewing gum while assisting at a marimba, points a mallet at a kid on a drum set, cueing a solo. They move on to other songs, playing the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and an African drum song. Downs will occasionally blow a raspberry, stop the song and re-start. “Wear the tambourine on your head,” she says to one kid. “I don’t care what you have on your head, but make sure you’re not thinking about that instead of your solo.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” he says.

    “Don’t ‘ma’am’ me.”

    “Yes, non-ma’am.”

    “Yes, sir!” another kid adds.

    Giggles ensue.

    The Leopards, with all their skill and goofiness, make brushes with fame seem effortless. Garnering Internet love from Jimmy Page. Playing onstage with jazz greats Louie Bellson and Joe Marillo. Landing an HBO documentary, The Leopards Take Manhattan. Alums Dani Markham and Hannah Ford Welton are on the way to becoming legends themselves, having performed with Childish Gambino and Prince, respectively. In July, the group played “Crazy Train” for Ozzy Osbourne on his A&E show, Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour. “I kind of cried when he walked in,” a sixth-grader recently told me in the Leopard rehearsal space on South Second Street.

    “They call us,” Downs says of the big names who have reached out over the group’s 25 years. It began when she found a bunch of instruments in a closet at King Elementary, where she was teaching second and third grades at the time, and decided to start a band. What hasn’t been easy for the 55-year-old, who retired from JCPS in January, is securing a rehearsal space for the nonprofit that now serves more than 130 kids from nearly 50 schools every year.

    “I got about 18 drum sets, 19 drum sets,” Downs says. “I mean, we don’t make good neighbors. We can’t be, like, in a strip mall.” They had a space at U of L for a time and outgrew that. There was the space on Third and York streets bought by the architecture firm Luckett & Farley, which, as Downs says, threw them out “in a really nice way.” The Leopards found a place a block away that had a butcher shop in the back and smelled like meat, so they called it the meat building. There was a cat there that was known to come around and pee on instrument covers. More recently, JCTC let the Leopards rent a refurbished black-box theater for about a year before needing it for the school. For the longest time, Downs would drive by an old Masonic lodge on South Second Street, schlepping kids from school to rehearsal, and say, “This is gonna be our new home.” Then Spalding University, in the middle of a real estate expansion near its campus south of Broadway, bought the funky white-brick building. Downs had to find a way to rent it.

    The crew has settled into the old, musty space since moving in a year ago this month. The main, cavernous room is where the bulk of the band’s instruments — including xylophones, bongos, timbales, steel drums and shakers — are set up. A room in the back has about 10 drum sets and looks more like a ’70s den, with floral hotel blankets hung along the walls for soundproofing. One room has a handful of practice marimbas. Outside, there’s a yard and a weedy driveway, where the Leopards put up a tent during summer camp. And the kids make sure to mention the “creepy basement” with dirt floors that they get to explore from time to time. The Leopards have two more years on the lease. Downs is hoping that this can be the forever spot, but who knows. “It’s old and dirty and beat up and we got a mouse, but he doesn’t eat much,” Downs says. “We love it here.”

    This originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Home to Stay?" To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters,

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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