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Empowerment through pan

Empowerment through pan

Story from The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian by Ray Funk


Lorna Green, the founder of CAFE—the Cultural Academy for Excellence.

Pan music has transformed many young lives in T&T and abroad. An October 15 special concert at Howard University, Washington, DC will be a testament to that. The concert will celebrate the Cultural Academy for Excellence (CAFE), founded by Lorna Green, which this year marks its 20th successful year as a youth empowerment programme, helping young people through steelpan in the Washington, DC area.

Guests at the concert will include celebrated pannist and music professor Liam Teague; the Kankouran West African Folk Dancers; Akua Allrich, jazz singer; the Josanne Francis Jazz Ensemble; and CAFE’s own Positive Vibrations Youth Steel Orchestra and Rhythm Starters.

Some 40 children currently take part in Lorna Green’s CAFE programme, which offers a safe haven for children, giving them opportunities as well as the discipline to accomplish things. 

“We have a high level of expectation for the kids, and they generally rise to that expectation,” says Green.

The programme helps children with homework, and the children also have the chance to learn chess, art and art history, music and music theory, samba drumming, and mindfulness yoga. The after-school programme is open from 2 to 7 pm in Washington DC and also offers the students snacks and dinner. It’s been a great success at changing lives and inspiring youths.

The concert will be at Howard University in Washington, DC and is being held under the auspices of the Embassy of T&T and Ambassador Brigadier General, Anthony Phillip-Spencer. 

Birth of the programme

The CAFE programme has been a leading one in the US to use pan for education and empowerment.

Lorna Green, born and raised in Barataria, grew up a fan of Pan Am North Stars before she moved to Maryland in the US. She did not get directly involved in pan, however, until her daughter started playing the instrument.

It all began when a Trinidadian family in the Mitchellville, MD, sent their daughter, Malika, and two other teenagers to the Entertainer Pan Camp in Trinidad in 1993. The camp was in Arima, and run by one of the premier female pannists at the time, Maureen Clement.

Lorna Green recalled her daughter’s transformation: “She was a quiet child, but when she played pan, she was so full of life.” Though Malika was an excellent student, when one of her grades started to slip, it was the threat of withholding the pan that motivated her to get that grade back up.

“It was that experience that gave me the thought of using pan for academics,” says her mother. Lorna Green then started devising a programme using steelband to motivate neighbourhood kids to improve their grades. With a background in business and finance, Green began this with no real training in music or education. But she never let that stop her.

She applied and got a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Foundation to start her programme, then cleared out her basement and got it up and running on June 1, 1996. The instruments came from Trinidad. She was referred to Guppy Brown and he sent her a first set of instruments before she had the grant money to pay him.

Later, she met Leon “Smooth” Edwards at a pan concert in the area and shared her vision about what she wanted to do. He soon became the first instructor for the programme. Green canvassed her friends from local schools and university communities to source other volunteers to become the programme’s first academic tutors.

Pan classes began in her basement. Kids were also learning history and math at tables under the trees in the backyard, while an artist friend started teaching kids art as well. They learned dance in a neighbour’s dance studio.

“The community was very supportive,” Green recalls. It began with just 16 kids, but they were off and running after a couple weeks.

The next year they got space in a local church.

Initially, it was a summer camp, but that soon morphed into a Saturday academy during the school year, with language, math and music. Over the years, the programme evolved into offering a wider range of subjects.

In 2014, a local developer approached Green with an offer for much more space in his two apartment complexes, if the kids living in the apartments could participate. This exchange proved a great boon to the programme and allowed them to expand to a weekday after-school programme and the Saturday Academy. They currently operate six days a week.

Learning pan—by theory and by rote

Steelpan remains a central part of the programmes at CAFE. Green notes that while playing pan is easy to learn, it is hard to master, because you need the discipline of any serious musician.

“Pan is taught both ways at CAFE”, she notes, “by rote and by theory.”

The kids have advanced more quickly by learning to read. The students take the annual Maryland State music theory exams, which CAFE uses as an evaluation tool. Victor Provost, one of the great young jazz improvisers on pan who also lives in the DC area, has served as an instructor at CAFE.

Adam Grise and Green’s daughter, Malika Coletta, were long-serving directors of the music programme at CAFE. They developed a music theory programme for CAFE that aligned with the Maryland State Music Teachers programmes, with support from the UWI (Dr Ann Marian Osborne) and the Pan in Schools programme (Pat Adams). UWI provided instructors to administer music practical examiners to test the theoretical and playing skills of CAFE’s students.

Grise is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Maryland and runs a pan summer camp programme there, while Coletta has received her Master’s degree from the Northern Illinois under Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis. Coletta works for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, where she is community engagement coordinator and directs the organisation’s four in-house and two satellite steelbands. 

The current music director of the CAFE programme is Josanne Francis, who earned a Bachelors in music education under Dr John Wooten at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master’s in steelpan under Liam Teague at Northern Illinois University. Francis is an internationally known steelpan performer, musician and educator who joined CAFE in 2014. Her exceptional talents took her to the stage of Carnegie Hall in 2014 as the winner of the American Prestige International Concerto competition. Under Francis’s leadership, CAFE’ music programme continues to maintain excellent standards.

Positive Vibrations

The pan programme has evolved into the primary performing ensemble Positive Vibrations Youth Steel Orchestra. There is also a group called Rhythm Starters for their youngest and beginning students, and PanTones for adults and alumni.

In 2010, Positive Vibrations released its first album. Members went to Dakar, Senegal in 2002, serving as youth ambassadors at the request of the US State Department to perform for the US ambassador and honoured guests of the diplomatic community during a special July 4 celebration.

Green has brought the group to visit members of the pan programme at Northern Illinois. The group has also visited Chicago and has twice won awards at the Virginia Beach Pan Fest. 

MORE INFO: Contact Lorna Green at

In Washington DC, Positive Vibrations has played at the Kennedy Center, and also at the National Children’s Hospital during visits from the American First Lady.
Recently, the pan group has partnered with QRC and in July 2015, Positive Vibrations made its first trip to Trinidad to appear in various pan venues and concerts, including the RIPE youth pan jamboree, QRC’s pan jamboree, All Saints Episcopal Church, and Bishop Anstey High School.
Building children’s confidence though their own achievements, and giving them respect and opportunities are all an essential part of the CAFE model.
Green notes that CAFE’s greatest challenge is ongoing funding.
“My staff is overworked and underfunded,” she comments, but she has persevered all these years and has no intention to slow down. She struggles to keep “top level staff”, she says. The art instructor, who has been with CAFE for 15 years, is Elizabeth Caesar, “Boogsie” Sharpe’s sister, and someone who has been a key part of CAFÉ’s success.
Well over 500 students have come through the programme, playing pan and finding a bond where they can learn to succeed. Students often come back to thank Green for what CAFE gave them, and to share their accomplishments — that is when she knows things are working correctly, says Green.
“Our desire is to bring these programmes to kids who deserve it but cannot afford it,” she says. Green does not expect her students to necessarily become musicians, but she sees a “transference of skills” with the discipline they develop. Skills and support the students get at CAFE carry over to their academics and other parts of their lives.
Some have been in the programme for 13 years. Already, they have had their first graduate receive a PhD. The students who have left, often still stay in touch with each other through Facebook and Instagram.
Green is looking forward to as many of the CAFE alumni as possible returning for their reunion event, which is welcoming all pan lovers and lovers of T&T culture.

MORE INFO: Contact Lorna Green at

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