The Museum serves as the regional center for folklife-related activities in Montgomery County, Maryland. We support folk artists and their communities as a means toward empowerment and self-determination.
We value collaboration at each stage of our work. We receive generous funding from the Maryland State Arts Council and work with Maryland Traditions to identify, document, and support the diverse communities of Montgomery County.
Our work is anchored in the partnerships we hold with folk artists and their communities. Learn more about our Folklife Partners below.
Josanne Francis, a steel pan musician, educator, and arts administrator — pauses for a moment of reflection. Asked why sharing music is important to her, she responds, “I believe I have this gift of teaching and knowing music and it makes no sense to me to hold onto it. I like to transfer the information.” Today, Francis shares her gift with audiences, students, and organizations across the Mid-Atlantic region. Yet, the roots of Francis’ gift lie in her native Trinidad and Tobago.
Josanne Francis was born in the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain in 1988. She spent her early years in Petit Valley, before her family moved to the nearby neighborhood of Diego Martin. Francis’s attraction to the steel pan initially came from television. As a child, she watched Panorama — one of Trinidad’s most important festivals and competitions for steelbands — and was mesmerized. She says, “I was always like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I want to do that. I want to do that . . . I would see these steel pan players on TV, having such a great time dancing and playing. And I was just always interested in it.”
When Francis was nine, she began lessons at a local pan yard — where bands gather for rehearsals and instruments are readily available. Francis later continued her studies with a private teacher — the only thing missing was her own steel pan. Undeterred, Francis created a cardboard cutout of the steel pan and used sticks for mallets. Owning an instrument was not a barrier to pursuing her musical ambitions.
During middle school, Francis joined her school’s steel pan ensemble, quickly rising to the position of captain and musical arranger. Francis then joined a community steelband, Starlift Steel Orchestra, featuring Ray Holman, a legendary musician, composer, and arranger. As section leader within the steelband, Francis was responsible for taking Holman’s arrangements and dispersing them to players in her section. She also co-founded the Starlift Junior Band. Francis’s experiences with Holman and the Starlift steelbands were transformative. She says, “Working with [Holman] and just being engaged with other people in the [bands], I said, you know what? I love teaching. I love performing, I love music. This is what I want to do.”
From the Islands to the United States, and from the Pan Yard to the University
Trinidad and Tobago has a rich heritage of steelbands, repertoires, and competitions – the steel pan is even the islands’ national instrument. Yet opportunities to study the instrument in University settings, outside of a focus on musical performance, are few. Wanting to combine her steel pan interests and musical education, Francis left her home to attend the University of Southern Mississippi at the age of 19. Following degree completion, Francis attended Northern Illinois University (NIU) to pursue a MA in steel pan studies, under the direction of Liam Teague and Dr. Cliff Alexis. At NIU, Francis participated in the University’s legendary steelband, co-directed the All University Steelband, and expanded her musical vocabulary.
Move to Maryland
In 2014, Francis was hired 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 — located in Mt. Rainer, Maryland. At CAFE, Francis leads several steelbands that cater to different levels of experience. The middle and high school band, Positive Vibrations Youth Steel Orchestra, has had numerous successes under Francis’s leadership. The band has won the Virginia International PANfestival competition several times and has toured in West Africa, Canada, and throughout the United States. Francis not only teaches steel pan to students in the Orchestra but also arranges music for the group.
Francis works hard to meet the needs of her students. Key to her approach is culturally relevant teaching, which she calls “instruction that students can understand from their perspective and from their background.” She explains the importance of this method:
And let’s be honest: the way this world is right now, we need things like arts education. And for a lot of these students, they [are] either not getting arts education in school or the arts education that they are receiving in school is not culturally relevant for them. So they’re not able to really absorb, understand, and apply what they’re learning. So I am a strong, strong advocate for culturally relevant teaching.
To explain how she would use culturally relevant teaching, Francis gives the example of teaching a group of Spanish immigrant youth. She says:
It’s not just throwing in a Spanish song in there so that it’s just decorating what I’m doing, but actually getting in, like, if I’m going to be teaching about rhythms, I’m going to be like, ‘Okay, this is the rhythm that the castanets are playing. Do you hear it?’ You know, just doing things that are relevant to their culture, things that they can easily understand and relate to while still getting the content that I need them to.
At CAFE, many of Francis’s students are of African-descent, others identify as Latino, and many come from immigrant families. She works hard to understand the many genres and musical styles with which these students identify. One of the benefits of the steel pan, as Francis describes, is that the instrument lends itself to culturally relevant teaching:
The steel pan is the perfect instrument to start a student on 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 — you can learn a tune in 10 minutes, and it’s very good for those students who would otherwise not be successful in your traditional ensemble classes . . . and you can integrate [the steel pan] with all these different cultures and these different types of music as well, so that you are still achieving cultural relevance while bringing this new instrument to the students.
Recognizing the impact that the steel pan had on students at CAFE, Francis was inspired to create additional orchestras. However, when she approached local schools about starting orchestras, they often balked at the price of the instruments. Never deterred, Francis created Steel on Wheels, a mobile set of instruments and instruction materials available on a rental basis. Francis hopes to find a physical home for Steel on Wheels, which would provide space for instrument storage, rehearsal, and musical collaboration in the DC Metropolitan region.
Bringing Steel Pan to the Stage
While keeping up her teaching, Francis is an in-demand performer at stages around the world. She 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 primary ensemble is the Josanne Francis Trio — featuring steel pan, bass, and drums. She also performs with the Josanne Francis Quartet, which includes percussion and/or piano, as well as the Josanne Francis Septet (steel pan, bass, drums, tabla, piano, sax, percussion). The music of these groups builds from Francis’s background in calypso, while pulling from jazz, reggae, classical, and Hindustani music.
Josanne Francis performs with her septet at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in 2018.
In 2017, Francis was an Artist-in-Residence at the Strathmore Institute for Artistic and Professional Development where she spent a year learning professional skills, developing new artistic material, and performing for the public. She remembers the Artist-in-Residence program as a fruitful time. There, Francis developed the idea for Steel on Wheels, strengthened her knowledge of the music business and collaborated with other Artists-in-Residence. This is where Francis met Chao Tian — a Chinese dulcimer (yanguin) player. The two started a duo called Parallel Intersections. For Francis, the combination of steel pan and Chinese dulcimer makes a “transcendent sound . . . [that is] beyond this world.”
Parallel Intersections, Josanne Francis and Chao Tian, performing “Shanghuai Shanghuai,” in 2019.
Today, Francis serves as the Executive Director of Cultural Arts for Excellence and is pursuing her doctorate in music education at the University of Maryland. During the pandemic, she has spent much of her time working on new curricula for the Steel on Wheels program and performing for online events. 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.
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
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.
Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble
The Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble performs traditional Armenian folk dances of Anatolia and the Caucuses under the direction of Carolyn Okoomian Rapkievian. The ensemble is accompanied by the Hyetones playing traditional Armenian folk music.
Cultura Plenera is a non-profit organization dedicated to community building in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia areas through the traditional Puerto Rican musical styles of Bomba and Plena. Bomba is a Puerto Rican musical genre that dates back more than 300 years, has heavy African influences, and expresses the sentiments of Puerto Ricans and their culture through barrel drums, maraca, cúa, singer and dancers. Plena is another Puerto Rican musical genre, which dates back more than 100 years, and also narrates stories of the Puerto Rican experience through hand drums, güiro and singers. Both Bomba y Plena are central to life in Puerto Rican communities inside and outside of the island.
Fata Antionette Togba – Mensah
Fata Togba-Mensah is the CEO of FAsmarketplace in Wheaton MD, a one-of-a-kind place where the focus is to stimulate local economic and community growth. Fata’s inspiration to create such an environment came from growing up in her home country Liberia. Fata’s mother owned a tailor-shop, her grandfather was a storyteller and her dad was an eloquent speaker who taught her the importance of self-expression. Fata, who is a trained educator, says that her major source of strength comes from the support of her husband James and her children. She decided to pursue her interest in the arts, full-time, as a toy maker, designer and an author of children books. She created the FAs Marketplace to help other small artisans start their dream businesses too.
Fata explained that the marketplace was created out of the need for independent artist and “creatives” to launch, maintain and grow their businesses in Montgomery County. In its first year over sixty businesses have passed through the Marketplace, from pop-up-shops to those with long-term arrangements. FAs Marketplace is housed in a formerly abandoned building. “Of course,” Fata says, “the business has not been short of challenges, especially since the location was closed and unused for a long period of time. So letting people know we are here in the community and getting the word out is pivotal to our survival in the space.”
The marketplace is getting ready to celebrate its one-year anniversary on April 17, 2020, but got the news that they have to relocate because of increased rent. The anniversary events would have started off with a fundraiser to get a commercial kitchen that would have been used by food vendors and artisans who create skincare products. The kitchen would have also been a place where different cooking classes would have been held, all this now has to be put on the back burner because of the recent news.
When asked what success of the FAs Marketplace would look like, Fata says that each individual artist, musician, crafts person could reach their own personal goal through being at the Marketplace. “An artist gets a major record deal, a designer gets a major contract or they are featured on a major platform. That would be the ultimate success.” The Marketplace also hosts art and sewing classes for adults and children, family movie night, “Live at the Marketplace” (where local performers showcase talent), sip-and-paint nights and karaoke.
FAsmarketplace is surely a place that is contributing significantly to the fostering of folk life in Montgomery County. I you know of a place that they can relocate, please contact us. You may also contact the Marketplace directly at: