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Meet Josanne Francis of Trinidad and Tobago

Her story, her reality, her journey - A Pan story... In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Josanne Francis of Trinidad and Tobago—now an NIU graduate student—shares her fantastic journey with the steelpan instrument as her guide, wind and sail.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Josanne Francis, and how and when did you first become involved with Pan?”

Josanne F. - “In 1998 my mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a beginner’s steelpan course at Merry Tones Steel Orchestra in Diego Martin, Trinidad. My sister and I were both interested so we took part in the course. We both did very well but I was the only one who really stuck with it afterwards. I went on to take pan lessons with Mrs. Bacchus Xavier a year later; then I really started playing more when I began attending St. Joseph’s Convent, P-O-S in 2000.”

WST - “The steelpan is now an integral part of your life path. When did you first come to believe that you could both love the Pan and perhaps even make a career out of it?”

Josanne F. - “Pan was always something that I loved, and I admired every person in every steelband that I saw - whether it was in person or on television. While at St. Joseph’s Convent, I always looked up to my teacher Mrs. Patrice Cox-Neaves. She set an excellent example of what it takes to be a teacher, and the importance of teacher-student relationships. It was while I was in Form Four and under her instruction that I realized that I really had a passion for my instrument, music and teaching. A passion deep enough for me to choose it as a career path; I loved music, I loved pan, I loved teaching.”  

Josanne Francis
Josanne Francis

WST - “Were there any obstacles along the way, or were you cautioned or perhaps dissuaded from focusing solely on the steelpan instrument as your passion in life?”

Josanne F. - “From the moment I decided to take my education further, to the collegiate level, my parents were 100% supportive. However, not everyone else was. Some would say in disgust, “MUSIC? You going quite Mississippi to do music/play pan??” Or they would tell me to major in something else, or minor in music so I have a ‘back up plan’ or a ‘plan B.’

“These words came from adults and so-called educated people who would never tell an accounting or engineering major to have a ‘plan B.’ I just kept saying, this is my passion and I am going to follow it. Along the way there were several financial obstacles because I do not come from a wealthy family but by the grace of God, tremendous sacrifice from my parents and myself, and the undying support and encouragement of family, good friends, and teachers, I made it to where I am today and still have a very long way to go. I am eternally grateful for what my parents have done.”  

WST - “You play other instruments as well; talk about this.”

Josanne F. - “While at the University of Southern Mississippi, I majored in music education with percussion as my instrument. Under the instruction of Dr. John Wooton, director of percussion studies at Southern Miss’ (as it is fondly called in the south), I became proficient in marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, timpani, drumset, snare drum, and many other orchestral and marching percussion instruments; as well as samba. Dr. Wooton is an excellent musician and educator and always encourages students to play and have fun while doing so.

“As a music education student, I went through several methods classes to learn to play and teach strings, brass, and woodwind instruments as well. During one of my student teaching placements (at Hattiesburg High School) the band director, Scott Johnson encouraged me to learn the euphonium, which I practiced hard and performed with the band at their concert.”  

WST - “Who are your music inspirations and influences - not only relative to Pan, but also in wider music genres?”

Josanne F. - “In general I try to draw inspiration in some way or another from everything that I listen to and see, whether it be a panist, poet, colleague, teacher, another instrumentalist, or arranger. So it may be impossible to name them all but I must say that I am really inspired by the musicianship and humility of my teacher Liam Teague. He sets a great example of a musician and person in general. I am also extremely grateful for the work and dedication of Cliff Alexis to pan and education. His love and support for young people is never ending.”  

WST - “Compare your experience as a Woman in Pan in 2014, with what you have probably heard, or be aware of, regarding women in Pan - decades before you, and challenges they faced?”

Josanne F. - “I personally have not faced any serious challenges as a woman in pan but I distinctly remember in 2006 when I arranged for my school band for Junior Panorama and one of the adjudicators’ comments said something to the effect of, “Excellent job for a female!” I was not quite sure how to interpret that comment back then. Nevertheless it was a wonderfully fulfilling experience. We made a statement and had a fantastic time!”  

WST - “Do any members of your family play Pan?”

Josanne F. - “In my immediate family, I am the only musician, but I have become inspiration for some of my younger second and third cousins to get involved in the instrument. I also have third cousins that play other instruments such as violin, bass, and drumset.”  

WST - “In February you performed Jan Bach’s Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra with the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra; talk a bit about the preparation for this event, and the show itself (you may already know, but your performance drew rave reviews!)”

Josanne F. - “First of all, thank you for the wonderful review. I read it at least 15 times!

“The Concerto mission actually started my second semester at NIU when I began learning the piece, under the guidance of Liam, so that I can perform it at my masters’ recital in April 2014. Liam mentioned the NIU Concerto Competition to me and I thought that it would be a great experience for me to participate in the competition, not really thinking about winning.

“Everything takes work. I spent countless hours practicing and preparing for the competition, playing for friends, listening to recordings, and getting frustrated at times when my hands weren’t co-operating with the music on the page, LOL.  “During my preparation I also drew inspiration from the musicality and attitude of Maxim Vengerov, an extraordinary violinist.

“There were two rounds of the competition and I was completely overjoyed when I emerged as one of the winners. I had the support of my parents, colleagues and teachers the entire way. As a result of winning, I got the opportunity to perform the piece, (Jan Bach’s Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra) with the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra. I only had about four rehearsals with the orchestra but Dr. Matos (the conductor) and the members did an excellent job working with me. From the moment I stepped on the stage I adopted an attitude appropriate for the piece, which allowed me to execute my performance with maximum musicality and expression. At the end of it, I felt great (as well as relieved!).”

WST - “Talk about your upcoming performance at the winners’ recital in May at Carnegie Hall in New York?”

Josanne F. - “Shortly after my performance with the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra, I entered the American Protégé International Concerto Competition. There were countless contestants from all over the world. A few weeks later I received notification that I emerged as a first place winner and will be performing in a winners’ recital at Carnegie Hall on May 26th. I am excited!”  

WST - “What are your plans after graduating from NIU (Northern Illinois University)?”

Josanne F. - “Once funds become available, I would like to enroll in and complete a doctoral program in music. Performing and educating others are mutually fulfilling experiences that I absolutely enjoy. Following my graduation, I hope to continue performing and teaching music & steelpan.”  

WST - “Discuss the ‘track’ that led you first to the University of Southern Mississippi and then NIU for your Master’s degree - how did it all come together?”

Josanne F. - “While in sixth form, I began researching different universities that have great music programs as well as steelbands. I came across several universities and established contact with the program directors. Ray Holman was also very helpful in advising me on schools that would be good for me to attend. After all my research, I decided that the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) would be a good fit for me.

“I’ve always had an interest in the program at NIU and during my senior year at USM, I decided to apply for graduate school at NIU and got accepted into the masters in steelpan program as a Graduate Assistant. It has been a remarkable experience thus far.”  

WST - “You’ve experienced steelpan in your home of Trinidad & Tobago, also at the University of Southern Mississippi and then at the Northern Illinois University; share some comparative observations regarding steelpan in these three environments.”

Josanne F. - “Being in these different environments really exposed me to the fact that culture and tradition have a huge impact on how people hear, understand, and execute music. The same cello pan strumming pattern written on manuscript, performed by people of different cultural backgrounds will sound different. In the same way, a syncopated melody will sound and feel different to people of different cultures.”  

WST - “Do you have any advice for young women now coming into the steel pan art form?”

Josanne F. - “The same advice that I would give to any young person: Follow your dreams and never give up. There will be many times that you will feel discouraged but it is all a process and it is not easy. At the end of the day you want to be happy with yourself and what you do. Never let anyone discourage you because of your age/gender and at the same time, never use your age/gender as an excuse for mediocrity.”  

WST - “In your opinion, what do you think is the place of the annual Panorama competition, with respect to the overall art form in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Josanne F. - “For me, Panorama is not just a competition. It is an experience. It is an experience for the composer who came up with such beautiful melodies and harmonies, the arranger who transforms it into an 8-minute masterpiece, the players who practice night after night into the wee hours of the morning, the management, parents, and the audience etc. It is the coming together of several forces. The end product (those few minutes on stage) is a wonderful display of our national instrument and our people - but I feel like that love, togetherness and energy is not sustained throughout the year, after carnival season is over.”  

WST - “If there was one thing in Pan you could change immediately what would that be?”

Josanne F. - “The steelpan is an infant of an instrument when compared to many other instruments and has come a long way thanks to the hard work and dedication of many pioneers. If there were one thing that I could change immediately it wouldn’t be the instrument itself but the respect or lack thereof for the art form. Pan is not always given the respect it deserves.”  

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in Trinidad and Tobago a decade from now?”

Josanne F. - “A decade from now I would like to see pan in all schools. Furthermore, I would like to see pan education in all schools. Students need not only to be taught where the notes are and how to play those notes, but we all need to understand where the instrument came from, the journey it took, and the people who made it possible for it to be here today. Many pioneers and innovators who were instrumental in uplifting and developing the instrument go unnoticed and it is extremely disrespectful. With pan education we can develop a nation of people who understand, appreciate, and respect the instrument.”

   Josanne Francis - Millennium Stage

Their Story, Their Voice, Their Life, Their Dreams - click for more stories

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