Trinidad & Tobago Baltimore Steel Orchestra
2013-14 Folklife Apprenticeship Award recipient
Founded in Baltimore in 1971, the Trinidad & Tobago Baltimore Steel Orchestra is led by master steel pan player and teacher Richard Semper. Across almost five decades, Semper has taught generations in the region, while his orchestra has had a celebrated career representing Maryland’s Trinidadian community.
The steel pan (also known as steelpans, steel drums or pans) is a musical instrument that was created on the island of Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1940s. Orchestras that in the late ’30s performed on frying pans, dustbins, and oil drums gave way to steel pan ensembles by the ’40s. When the United States Navy arrived on Trinidad in 1941, sailors were amazed by the steel pan music and helped popularize it internationally.
Steel pans were originally made from 55-gallon industrial drums that were hammered to create individual notes; today, many instruments are created to custom specifications. The repertoire of a modern orchestra may include reggae, pop tunes, and, of course, instrumental interpretations of the calypsos so closely associated with the island.
Richard Semper immigrated to the U.S. in 1968 from Trinidad. His steel orchestra quickly became a mainstay, performing concerts throughout the mid-Atlantic region, touring Europe in 1978 as Goodwill Ambassadors for the City of Baltimore, entertaining crowds at the 1979 and 1983 Major League Baseball World Series in Baltimore, and playing for former President Carter at the Kennedy Center. Recognizing the orchestra’s significance, the late mayor and governor of Maryland William Donald Schaefer named it the “official steel orchestra of the City of Baltimore.” Today, the group boasts three generation of pan players.