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.