By Lauren Vogel
You're watching Saturday Night Live, one of the longest running
series on television. Can you name the percussionist in the band? Perhaps
you were in the newly renovated New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway during
the first two years of the mega-hit musical The Lion King. Did one of
the percussionist look familiar? Women were not allowed to play the gyil
in Africa until 1988. Do you know who broke that gender barrier?
It's hard to believe
that these "three" percussionists are actually one musician.
Valerie Dee Naranjo is a true "world" percussionist, having
performed on six continents during the past two and a half decades. She
combines a traditional percussion background- with an emphasis in marimba
and keyboard percussion- with a little of her Native American background
along with a generous helping of her love of African instruments- especially
For twenty Saturday
nights each year, Valerie Dee Naranjo can be found in Studio 8H in NBC's
Rockefeller Center- and on countless television screens across the
country- playing everything from African percussion and bodhran to
glockenspiel and xylophone in the SNL band. Naranjo met SNL bandleader
Lenny Pickett at a drum shop many years ago, and later performed with
his instrumental ensemble in Europe. He called her in 1995, looking
for "not the typical
pop percussionist," and she's been with the SNL band ever since.
in putting together the music for such a popular program? "If something
needs to be prerecorded for the cartoons or mock commercials," Valerie
explains, " we meet at one o'clock on the Friday before a show.
We're typically given an hour and a half to rehearse and record. Once
I arrive and see the music for the first time, I choose the instruments
I'll play and we'll do it in one or two takes."
How does Valerie
decide what to play? "I get everything from pieces of music that
have all the parts written out to tunes that just have bar lines and say
'go for your own,'" she explains with a smile and a shrug of her
shoulders. "I listen to the style of the song. If it's reggae, I've
got specific ideas. If it's Latin, I have other ideas. Sometimes I have
to make some split-second decisions about what instrument to play. Oftentimes
during the rehearsal, I'll stop for a few seconds in the middle of a
tune and switch instruments, because something might not be working the
way I thought it would. That's one of a percussionist's job in a band:
to provide variety."
The band gets together
at 11:00 A.M. on the day of the show. "That means I have to be there
at 10:30," Naranjo laughs. "I tune my instruments up, make
sure that I have my game on, and from 11:00 to 1:00 we rehearse anywhere
from twelve to twenty-five songs. Many of them we've played before. Sometimes
we'll play a song once or twice and then again that night for the live
show. If we need to rehearse a live sketch with a cast member who is
singing, that would happen at 1:00. Then we're given a break until about
4:15, when we rehearse the monolog with the guest host."
Following a dinner
break and time for "hair and make-up" -after all, it is live
television- the band returns to warm up the studio audience at 7:25 P.M.
and do a complete dress rehearsal. That studio audience is released around
ten, and while the producers decide what sketches to edit, the band has
another break. "At 10:55," Valerie continues, "the band
warms up a completely different audience and plays the show, until it
ends at 1:00.
musicians are great," Valerie enthuses, "and Shawn Pelton is
just the quintessential show drummer. He's wonderful to work with. All
of the musicians have a spirit of camaraderie that really makes a high-pressure
situation like ours very sweet."
"This is a
thoroughly multi-percussion gig," Naranjo continues. "For example,
in a Motown tune I can be swinging a tambourine with one hand and playing
mallet parts with the other. My function is to be the entire percussion
section, so my four-mallet independence comes into play often in this
in percussion can be traced to her mother, who wanted to play percussion
but never did. "In the Southwest, there were't too many venues
for percussionists except places like bars, so my well-meaning grandfather
dissuaded my mother from pursuing percussion studies. She suggested
that I play, but I didn't learn that had been her dream until two years
was a farmer-and also a musician. "In our community," Naranjo
remembers, "musicians had other occupations, yet they were given
a lot of respect. The musicians were responsible for much of the healing
energy-the emotional and social health of the community. I had the great
fortune of singing traditional Ute and other Native American songs with
my family. That had a tremendous influence on my attitude towards music
Valerie began her
studies with Dr. John Galm at the University of Colorado. Later, on a
Bureau Of Indian Affairs scholarship, she attended the University of Oklahoma,
where she studied with Dr. Richard Gipson. Upon obtaining a bachelor of
music education in vocal and instrumental music at OU, she studied with
marimba virtuoso Leigh Howard Stevens, and then with well-known marimba
soloist and composer Gordon Stout at Ithaca College in New York. She received
a master's degree in performance and ethnomusicology at Ithaca. Then it
was off to New York City to begin the task of being a professional musician.
During her years
at the University of Colorado, Valerie was introduced to a doctoral student
from Ghana. "His name was Joseph...I never learned his last name,"
Naranjo admits. "He wanted us to develop our heart and soul to go
along with the chops and reading skills. But the impression that stuck
with me through the years was him playing these gorgeous little pieces
on the marimba that were recollections of gyil pieces from West Africa."
The Gyil (pronounced "JEE-lee") is a fourteen-bar African marimba based on a pentatonic
scale and played with mallets. The bass line is kept with the left hand
while the right hand plays chords and improvisation. The performer also
sings while playing. "There's a whole body of barphonic percussion
music that exists in West Africa that's soulful, complicated, and wonderful,"
Valerie says. "After graduate school, a friend and I literally combed
the streets of Harlem to find a recording of Kakraba Lobi, a master xylophonist
from Ghana. After that, I never turned back!"
met Lobi in 1991, when she studied with him in his native Ghana. "Kakraba
is the kind of person who walks into a room, sits behind a gyil, and
in a minute's time transforms the energy of a room. At the same time,
he just makes your eyes fall out of your head because of the technical
prowess that's involved in the traditional music that he's playing."
Valerie has the
distinction of being the first woman to play gyil in public, at Ghana's
Kobine Festival (1988). She's also the first non-Ghanaian to win a first
place award, which she did in 1996.
"I went to
Ghana to learn about the gyil. But what really stayed with me," she
confides, "was the realization that the most compelling music comes
from a powerful community. I think that's one of the reasons West Africa
has been the core of popular music all over the world. It's a very powerful
expression of community.
that I realized is that a trap drummer is a multi-instrumentalist, much
the same way that a gyil player is. It's similar in the sense that
a gyil player keeps a groove and bass line with his left hand while
he's putting a cymbal-like part on the top of the instrument. Then
he's either improvising or playing a melody in the middle of the instrument.
I transfer a lot of my ideas from the gyil onto the drumset."
Naranjo used her
West African experiences in another highly-visible gig, Disney's Tony
award-winning Broadway show The Lion King, which features an unprecedented
five percussionist. "I'd been working with Julie Taymor [who directed
The Lion King on Broadway] since 1986," Valerie explains, "when
she was down in Soho doing a low-budget but high-artistic-value Shakespeare
play. After that, she always brought me in as a barphonic specialist.
So she'd already had an earful of gyil and other West African instruments.
When they approached her to do The Lion King, she gave me a call and
I was the first musician hired."
the African percussion parts for the show, including chromatic marimbas,
chromatic gyil, pentatonic gyil, djembe, djun-djun, shekeres, caixis,
and different kinds of bells and shakers-not to mention a range of Latin
percussion (bongos, conga, and timbales). There were over one hundred
fifty percussion instruments involved.
during the show's early weeks in Minneapolis. "We knew that this
was going to be a great show, at least from an artistic standpoint, because
the first audiences broke into applause and ovations during the middle
of the show," she remembers with a laugh. "This is a show for
the 21st century, and I had this sense of hopefulness that music from
West Africa was going to become part of the experience of Broadway patrons,
from six-year-olds to sixty!" (For more information on the Drummers
Of The Lion King, check out the feature story in the November 1998 issue
of Modern Drummer.)
During the coming
months, Naranjo plans to record the music of Kakraba Lobi on chromatic
marimba, with a different drummer for each tune. So far she has lined
up her SNL bandmate Shawn Pelton as well as percussionist Frank Colon
and tabla player Badal Roy. In July she will tour West Africa with Lobi,
and in November she'll perform with him at the Percussive Arts Society
International Convention (PASIC) in Columbus, Ohio. In between such high-profile
gigs, Valerie also plays with the Paul Winter Consort and does Native
American music clinics throughout the US.
As if this isn't
enough, Valerie is the co-leader (along with Barry Olsen) of Mandara,
an ensemble of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists dedicated to performing
music of western and southern Africa. (Mandara Music Publications publishes
and records the music of Kakraba Lobi, Bernard Woma, Naranjo, and Olsen.
For more information, check out their Web site, WWW.mandaramusic.com.)
Olsen and Naranjo
are more than co-leaders of the band they founded in 1983. They've been
married for eighteen years. "By presenting ourselves as co-leaders
and not as husband and wife, people take us for who we are--co-leaders
and musicians in a group," Valerie explains. So what is it like working
with your husband? "It's wonderful!" she says with a giggle.
"It's very important to be professional with your spouse, just like
you would with anyone else. Once you've done that, the doors are wide
open. And we've had wondeful times playing together, both on the road
and here in the states." You can hear the respect-and love-in her
voice when she says, "It helps that Barry is just an absolutely
Valerie wanted to
share one last bit of advice for young percussionist all over the world: "Enjoy
your playing, and play music because you love it. It's a great thing
to get the encouragement and approval of those around you. But if you're
playing music for that reason, it's going to be hard to go through all
the knocks and bumps. It's the energy of music itself that is key to
being a successful player. And to me, a truly successful player is a
happy person who can create happiness for others."
A View From The Kit
Shawn Pelton is the groovin' drummer
in the Saturday Night Live band. Shawn plays with Valerie Dee Naranjo
each week the show tapes. "She's unique in her concept of combining
her background in African music with traditional percussion," Pelton
states. "She brings a lot to the table, which is great. It's remarkable
that she has such a wide range and can cover so many bases stylistically.
It's really unusual to find someone who can be strong in so many areas,
such as mallets, as well as all the other percussion instruments."
Does Pelton play
his parts differently depending on what instruments Naranjo chooses to
play? "Definitely," Shawn says enthusiastically. "I
try to listen and totally be aware of how she's coloring the tune and
what she's doing. That determines how I approach the tune as well.
It would be great if all drummers and percussionist could be aware
of each other and have that kind of relationship.
of Valerie has been a real inspiration," Shawn continues, "because
she has such commitment as well as a rare artistic sensibility about
percussion. Her African experiences give her a unique approach to the
choices she makes during a performance. Valerie is always challenging
herself in creative ways and finding fresh approaches. She truly has
a passion for music that can be felt instantly."