By Lauren Vogel Weiss
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 the gyil.

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.

What’s involved 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.

“The other 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 gig.”

Valerie’s interest 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 ago.”

Valerie’s grandfather 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 and musicians.”

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!”

Naranjo finally 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.

“Another thing 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.”

Naranjo arranged 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.

Valerie performed 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,

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 incredible musician.”

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.”

Shawn Pelton On Naranjo
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.

“Working alongside 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.”