Valerie Naranjo, Pelton’s Percussive Partner by Andy Doershuk

After a decade into her gig as the principle percussion and mallet specialist on Saturday Night Live, Valerie Naranjo still sees herself as “the wild card in the band.” Yes she acknowledges . . no, make that relishes being part of a team in which everyone plays an essential role. “A lot of what makes this show so special is the camaraderie.”

So for obvious reasons, she works closely with drummer Shawn Pelton, the other half of SNL’s blinding percussion duo. “We complement each other as a section,” she says. “My biggest consideration is what Shawn is playing. For example, (if) I’m starting with a bell pattern and he’s doing a bell pattern himself, I may make a snap decision to play something like a shaker or timbales. He does really out and tricky things with the snare drum rather than 2 and 4. That’s my opportunity to jot down his pattern and figure out how to converse with that.”

Of all the players in the all-star band, Naranjo’s parts run the gamut, from free jamming to precise ensemble work, depending greatly on the instruments she’s asked to play. “I read charts with very specific parts and I read charts that are slashes,” she explains. “I read mallet that are obviously (written) note-by-note, some where they want that triangle to be right there, and others that are much freer.”

If you’ve ever had the split-second opportunity to spy Naranjo in action when SNL cuts to a commercial break, you’ve witnesses a blur of energy behind a fortress of percussion packed into an impossibly cramped space. ” I have maybe 150 instruments there,” she says. “My setup is: two mallet instruments – a xylophone and a glock, three or four West African hand drums, five or six Latin percussion – three congas, bongos, timbales; a series of gongs and cymbals, orchestral percussion, for effects and such; and then your array of pop percussion, tamborines and shakers.

When she isn’t adding texture and shape to the SNL band, Naranjo keep as busy schedule. She continues to play around town, keeps a frantic schedule of mallet clinics and worshops around the country, and is just about to begin work on an ambitious solo album. “Sometmes I wish there was a little bit of a breather,” she laughs, but quickly admits she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s all been a really great experience.“