Josanne Francis

Josanne Francis is a steel pan musician, educator, and arts administrator based in metropolitan Washington, DC. Francis was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1988. As a child, Francis became fascinated with the steel pan. Her desire to play the instrument was so strong that, even before she owned a steel pan, Francis took lessons using a cardboard cutout of the instrument’s playing surface and sticks instead of mallets.

During middle school, Francis joined an important Trinidadian steel band, the Starlift Steel Orchestra, and worked closely with Ray Holman — a legendary musician, composer, and arranger in the calypso tradition. The experience inspired Francis to turn her passion for music into a career. At nineteen, Francis left her home to pursue degrees in music education and performance — first a BA from the University of Southern Mississippi and then a MA at Northern Illinois University — in the United States.

In 2014, Francis began working in Maryland as Artistic Director at the Cultural Academy for Excellence (CAFE) — a non-profit arts organization that uses the performing arts as a vehicle for learning, leadership, and academic achievement among youth. As director of the school’s Positive Vibrations Steel Band, Francis empowers students who come from a range of historically marginalized communities. Francis says that the steel pan is the perfect instrument for CAFE’s beginning music students because “they’re not worrying about embouchure or they’re not worrying about fingering. They’re not worried [if] you have a good instrument, [if] you have a good instructor . . . [the steel pan] is very good for those students who would otherwise not be successful in your traditional ensemble classes.” Seeing the impact of the steel band on her students at CAFE, Francis created Steel on Wheels —a mobile set of steel pans and instruction materials available for other schools on a rental basis.

When she is not teaching, Francis is an in-demand performer. With her trio and septet, Francis has performed at the San Juan Conservatory of Music (Puerto Rico), Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Howard University, the University of Maryland, and Humboldt State University. Her performances mix calypso, jazz, reggae, classical, and Hindustani music, representing Francis’ diverse musical background. Francis is also the co-creator of Parallel Intersections — a duo with Chinese dulcimer (yanguin) player, Chao Tian. The two met in 2017 when Francis was an Artist-in-Residence at the prestigious Strathmore Institute for Artistic and Professional Development.

Josanne Francis performs with her septet at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in 2018.

Parallel Intersections, Josanne Francis and Chao Tian, performing “Shanghuai Shanghuai,” in 2019.

Through her performing and teaching, Francis has also become an experienced non-profit administrator. In 2020, she was hired as the Executive Director of the Cultural Academy for Excellence. As she moves into the future, Francis will continue to share her gifts as an educator, performer, and administrator with others in the Mid-Atlantic, while looking back to her Caribbean roots for inspiration.

Tebabu Assefa

Coffee ceremony convener, storyteller, and entrepreneur, owner of Blessed Coffee

Tebabu Assefa is an Ethiopian-born coffee ceremony convener, storyteller, and entrepreneur living in Takoma Park, Maryland. With his wife, Sara Mussie, Assefa organizes and leads Ethiopian coffee ceremonies for social engagement and community-building throughout Maryland and Washington, DC.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the 1960s, Assefa participated in coffee ceremonies as a child. He recalls being asked by his mother to visit their neighbors and let them know that coffee would soon be ready at Assefa’s house. Later in life, Assefa learned more about the coffee ceremony from participating in the ceremony throughout Ethiopia. Coffee would take on new meanings for Assefa when he left Ethiopia and eventually settled in the United States in the 1990s.

Deciding that he wanted to be a storyteller and filmmaker, Assefa enrolled at the University of Minnesota for a degree in communications. His goal was to portray the cultural vitality of the Ethiopian community of greater Washington, DC. But, living in the United States was not an easy transition for Assefa. He struggled with the individualism of North American society, particularly because of his upbringing in Africa. He explains:

By nature [individuals] have social elements. In African contexts, it’s a very profound notion. From South Africa to Ethiopians in South Africa, they call it mbutu. In Ethiopia it’s like who I am is directly related to who we are. I am because we are; because we are, therefore I am. And if that relationship is disrupted, psychologically, spiritually, financially, in any way you think of, there’s no help, because you cannot live by yourself. It’s impossible.

For Assefa, the solution to sharing the story of Ethiopian communities and addressing a lack of mbutu in the United States was coffee. First, coffee is loved by both Americans and Ethiopians. Second, coffee is central to telling the story of Ethiopia’s history, economy, and social life. Third, Assefa understands the coffee ceremony as a chance to slow down and to socialize with others. He says:

In [Ethiopia], people on a daily basis, take time . . . villages, families, friends, will take time out of a day, and sit in a ritual of coffee, traditional coffee culture, where they sit in a circle, they roast, smell, brew, drink, enjoy the coffee . . . they talk about everything about themselves. Dreams are translated, businesses are discussed, social news is [shared] . . . so the relationship between the individual to the family is cultivated or incubated in that same space. So the sense of  I and we are very profound for the community. It’s not an intellectual concept. It’s a dance, it’s a ritual. And people have to do that collective ritual, collective dancing, to really value who they are to one another.

In bringing the coffee ceremony to the United States, Assefa meets his goal of telling the story of Ethiopia and giving those in America an opportunity to experience the benefits of socializing together.

During coffee ceremonies, Assefa narrates the ritual and discusses its significance, while his wife, Sara Mussie, is busy roasting, brewing, and pouring the coffee into small cups for drinkers. The husband and wife also work together through their social enterprise called Blessed Coffee—a “Benefit Corporation” which uses for-profit and non-profit business models to offer quality coffee to American drinkers while providing the maximum economic benefit to Ethiopian coffee cooperatives and farmers. Mussie’s official title is Co-Founder and Chief of Mission, while Assefa works as Co-Founder and Chief Storyteller at Blessed Coffee.

Since he began working with coffee ceremonies, Assefa has led the gathering at several important events. Notably, Assefa hosts a coffee ceremony at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, DC each year on Passport Day. An estimated 10,000 people take part in the event. (Editor’s note: The photo used in this profile depicts Tebabu Assefa, Sara Mussie, and the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States, Fitsum Arega, taken on Passport Day at the Ethiopian Embassy). Assefa has also seen strong connections made among participants in the coffee ceremony. Once, two individuals who did not know each other prior to the ceremony, realized they lived in the same apartment building during their conversation. Other times, Assefa sees people from various countries find common experiences, even though they have grown up on different continents. For Assefa, the coffee ceremony is an opportunity to move beyond national identities and toward shared humanity. He says, “Though we have different flags of cultures and religions, at the end of the road, in essence, we’re all one and the same. The flag, or the culture, that we carry of the village . . . shouldn’t really define our essence because, at the end of the day, we’re just celebrating humanity or trying to figure out the meaning of life. We’re just human beings.”

Mr. Assefa’s first name, Tebabu, was given to him by his mother because it means “wisdom.” Yet, as a young man, Assefa was not happy about his name. He says, “I went to my mum and I said, ‘From all the names you could give me, why Wisdom? What happened, what did you think of?’ She looked at me, cracked a smile, and softly said, ‘It’s my hope and prayer, someday you’ll bump into it.’ I thought that was remarkable because all my life has been set in motion in search of wisdom.” Now, as an artist, storyteller, and community builder in Maryland, Mr. Assefa is using coffee and its accompanying ceremony to offer tebabu through caffeinated conversation.

Halau Ho’omau I ka Wai Ola O Hawai’i

Halau Ho’omau I ka Wai Ola O Hawai’i, meaning “through hula and halau, we remain young at heart and full of life,” is a traditional Hawaiian cultural school organized by Suz and Manu Ikaika. The Halau, serves students of diverse backgrounds from Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. In class, all music and chants are performed live by Halau musicians. Oli (hula chants); hula olapa and hula kui (ancient hula); hula auana (free-flowing modern hula in the traditional style); Hawaiian arts and crafts, history, language, and music (ukulele and ancient hula implements) classes are offered to perpetuate all aspects of Hawaiian culture and to educate the local community about Hawaii and its people. Their primary goal is to keep Hawaiian heritage alive by celebrating the traditions of our native Hawaii.

DC Beijing Opera

Close up of Beijing Opera performer with traditional make-up and head dress. Includes watermark for A. Claire Vision Photography

Beijing Opera, or Chinese Opera, or Peking Opera is a form of traditional Chinese theatre which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19th century. 

Beijing opera features four main types of performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Beijing opera’s characteristically sparse stage. They utilize the skills of speech, song, dance, and combat in movements that are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic. Above all else, the skill of performers is evaluated according to the beauty of their movements.