Valerie Naranjo’s performance career is one many percussionists would dream of having. She plays percussion for NBC’s Saturday Night Live band and performs on Broadway’s The Lion King. She has recorded and performed with some of the biggest musical acts in history, including the Philip Glass Ensemble, David Byrne, the Paul Winter Consort, Tori Amos, Airto Moreira, and the international percussion ensemble MegaDrums, which includes Milton Cardona, Zakir Hussain, and Glen Velez.
More than her impressive performance credits, Naranjo’s career has broken boundaries of genre and gender to help redefine the way we as percussionists engage with our communities. Valerie has created a space for percussionists that is more inclusive to everyone, especially women. “She broke a gender barrier by being the first woman to perform on gyil and to become a first-place prize winner in Ghana’s Kobine Festival of Traditional Music,” says Dr. Patrick Roulet. She has incorporated musical instruments and styles from around the world into pop, classical, rock, and folk traditions, which have influenced our entire field. “Her contributions to music and percussion are boundary breaking, crossing, and uniting,” says Dr. Roger Braun. “From the popular music of the Saturday Night Live band, to the New York musical theater scene, to the gyil music of Ghana, to her impact as a world music educator, her influence is profound.”
Valerie Dee Naranjo was born in Los Angeles to Native American parents, and she was raised in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado. Her father was Southern Ute and her mother had roots in the Navajo nation. Valerie grew up in a very musical family. “The majority of my extended family are singers or instrumentalists,” she says. “My family members came to visit often, usually unannounced, since we didn’t have telephones at the time. At some point, someone would pick up an instrument and we would play together.”
Valerie’s parents were very supportive and encouraging of her learning to play an instrument. “My father deeply respected the power of music in the community,” Naranjo recalls. “Before I was old enough to join the school band, my parents were telling me how great it would be to play a musical instrument.” She first heard marimba in Baja, California at the age of six and was immediately attracted to the instrument. When it became time to choose an instrument in school, she wanted to play the flute. “I had decided to play flute, but my mother asked, ‘Would you consider playing drums? There’s more need for drummers than there is for flautists.’” Her mother wanted to play the drums when she was young, but her grandfather felt that drummers were typically associating in environments with alcohol and did not feel it would be a good setting for a young woman to grow up in.
Valerie moved away from her parents at age 14 and made a living as a waitress and chamber maid. “Throughout high school, music was the guiding force to get me up in the morning and to excel in school,” she explains. “I took responsibility to play piano for my church to learn how to play the instrument.”
Valerie saw college as a way out of a hometown environment prevalent with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide. She began her studies with percussionist and ethnomusicologist Professor John Galm at the University of Colorado, where she first was introduced to the gyil, the West African xylophone. “As a freshman at the University of Colorado, I took a required course in Ewe drumming from a Ghanaian doctoral student,” Naranjo explains. “He would often walk up to a marimba and doodle. He had a concept that I’d never heard on the instrument. Eventually he alluded to the Ghanaian gyil. This sparked my interest.”
Valerie transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where she changed her major from Performance to Vocal and Instrumental Music Education. During her senior year at OU, she met Karen Ervin, Gordon Stout, and Leigh Howard Stevens, who were in residence at the time. She ended up traveling to Manhattan for ten days to study with Stevens and was introduced to the loft scene in New York City. “You’d go to an informal venue — often someone’s loft,” she remembers. “You’d hear musicians come from their more formal gigs to improvise with one another. This was everything that I hoped to understand about how musicians inspire people and give them the positive energy to be the kind of people that they want to be.“
After completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, Valerie moved to New York City to develop a freelance career. She was able to secure a gig playing marimba five nights a week at an Italian restaurant, and she also had success busking, enabling her to maintain a modest freelance lifestyle until she continued her studies at Ithaca College for a master’s degree with Gordon Stout. “Gordon was not only a great teacher and stellar performer, but he inspired me to have confidence in myself and to see the bigger picture in music making,” Valerie says. During her graduate studies, there was an assignment called Bibliography of Music, in which Valerie chose gyil as her topic. “The idea behind Bibliography of Music was that, as a performer, you’d probably do clinics or master classes, or at some point be called upon to educate your audience about your instrument,” she explains. “I chose gyil as my subject and found that there was very little scholarship about the instrument.” This started Valerie’s career in West African percussion.
BUILDING A CAREER
After finishing graduate school, Valerie moved back to New York City to begin establishing her career. “I made a budget for bills, and if my gigs did not cover those things, then I would busk,” Valerie said in a 2021 MalleTALK podcast. “For me, it was a double-headed coin. I made enough financially to stay afloat, and I made some amazing connections. When you put yourself out on a street corner, you never know who you’re going to meet.” This helped her build a strong network of musicians and friends she could trust. “I freelanced as a marimbist, hand drummer, vibist, and percussionist, and met members of El Taller Latino Americano [Latin American Workshop] while busking, and I ended up in their house band.” Through that group, she met Philip Glass and toured Europe and the U.S. with his ensemble in 1988, 1991, and 1993.
During this time, she also had several other notable performance opportunities, including singing with Native American women’s group Ulali, performing with indie songsters like Richard Barone, touring Switzerland and Germany with percussion ensemble MegaDrums (organized by Reinhard Flatischler) along with Zakir Hussain, Glen Velez, Airto Moriera, and Milton Cardona, performing with the Paul Winter Consort, recording and touring with David Byrne, and performing with Carole King at the White House.
Valerie had the opportunity to perform with South African singer/actor Thuli Dumakude, and in 1990, she traveled to South Africa and Zimbabwe to gain first-hand experience of their culture. In 1994, she lived in South Africa, performing with Thuli at the Grahamstown Festival and the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, while also freelancing. Working at the Civic Theatre, she met master djembe player Adama Drame, whom she ended up studying and teaching with. “I learned what I know about pacing and stamina from Adama,” she says. “In Jo’burg, our ensemble would start a Kakilambe or a Mendiani rhythm. ‘Yep, feels pretty good.’ Then Adama would come onto the stage. His first notes, his most subtle, were like a wakeup call, and he pumped up the energy from there. There was no way that we were going to disappoint him, so physical training was imminent.”
Valerie also created her own ensemble, Mandara, with Barry Olsen, Bryan Carrott, Vince Cherico, Essiet Essiet, and Leo Traversa. “A significant creative experience for me was to form and lead my own group,” Naranjo says. “The two concepts behind Mandara are to trace the lineage of Latin music and jazz back to traditional West African music, especially that of the gyil, and to write original music for three voices, rhythm section, trombone, and mallet instruments. We did everything possible — street festivals, school concerts, independent concerts, and eventually the recording, Mandara.”
In addition to Mandara, Valerie has since recorded ten albums under her own name, including four albums with Kakraba Lobi and Barry Olsen, Zie Mwea (Natural Conditions) with Barry Olsen and Bernard Woma, Orenda (Native American Music to Heal the Spirit), Lewaa’s Dream with such percussionists as Shawn Pelton, Randy Crafton, and Obo Addy, Bata Gyil with Africa’West, and educational CDs West African Music for the Marimba Soloist and World Music for the Western Percussion Ensemble.
THE GYIL AND KAKRABA LOBI
During her early career in New York City, Valerie remained very interested in the gyil, so she began searching for any recordings she could find of the instrument. “I combed through record shops and eventually happened upon the album Kakraba Lobi – Xylophone Master from Ghana,” she recalls. “When I put it on the player, Kakraba’s gyil music immediately spoke to me! I decided then and there that I would do as much as I could to learn about the gyil, its music, and the musicians who make it. The Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts became like a second home to me. I transcribed every field recording that I could get my hands on.”
With her excitement, she eventually wrote to the record label and then to Kakraba himself to ask if she could study with him. They scheduled a meeting in September 1988, but when Valerie arrived in Ghana, Kakraba had been hired to perform in Japan, so he was not there. “This turned out to be fortunate,” Valerie said in a 2015 Rhythm! Scene article, “because instead of starting my gyil studies in the capitol city where Kakraba had relocated to, I went to Ghana’s Upper West, where the instrument actually originated, and I saw how important it was to the people there. I started to study with teachers who really set my right foot forward by teaching me relatively less complicated music and having me perform it in public right away.”
Valerie studied with master instrument builder Newin Baaru, Richard Na-lle, and P.K. Derry. Eventually word spread to the local leader, Chief Abeifa Karbo III, who requested Valerie perform for him and his council. “Up to this point, tradition banned women from even touching a gyil, although no one seemed to actually know why,” Valerie recalled in a 1998 Percussive Notes article. “Chief Karbo, a well-traveled man with a degree in law, harbored a desire for all of his subjects to realize their full potential, especially women.” Valerie and Baaru performed for the chief and his counsel, and after much deliberation, Chief Karbo declared publicly, “From now on, women will be allowed to play the gyil!” This was an enormous milestone, not only for this village and the country of Ghana, but for the global percussion community as a whole. The short documentary film Knock on Wood by Ron Grunhut tells Valerie’s story of her first visit to Ghana.
Since Valerie’s initial visit to Ghana, she has returned several times to study and perform. In September 1989, she returned to meet and study with KakrabaLobi and to perform in the Kobine Festival, the world’s largest gyil festival and competition. She returned almost every summer from 1991–2007 to apprentice with Kakraba, and she and Lobi presented gyil clinics together at PASIC in 1999, 2000, and 2002. In 1996, she competed in Kobine with her husband, Barry Olsen, and received first prize. She has transcribed, published, and recorded 16 traditional gyil pieces in “West African Music for the Marimba Soloist” with Kakraba. Additionally, motivated by a dream of Kakraba Lobi to perform with an orchestra, Valerie collaborated with orchestrator Andrew Beall and others to create eight pieces for gyil and orchestra, two pieces for gyil and strings, and four pieces for gyil and wind ensemble. With the assistance of Dr. Andy Teirstein, a colleague from NYU, Valerie performed with the Ghana National Symphony in 2018 and 2019.
LION KING AND SNL
It took Valerie seven years after moving to New York City to break in as a principal for off-Broadway shows, including: Vintage, The Tempest, Juan Darién, and The New Americans. The director of The Tempest was Julie Taymore, who, in 1996, invited Valerie to be a part of a new show she was directing, The Lion King. “My most wonderful experiences with The Lion King have been in the process of creating the show, from August of 1996 until opening night in November of 1997 — choosing the instruments, auditioning the players, writing percussion arrangements, meeting with the creative team night after night.” At PASIC 2003 in Louisville, Valerie gave a clinic titled “African Styles in the Broadway Pit,” in which she was accompanied by percussionists from the touring production of The Lion King, which was being performed in Louisville at the time. Valerie has now performed on The Lion King show for over 24 years.
Fortunately, the musician’s union in New York City allows pit musicians to sub up to 50% of their shows, giving them a chance to be involved in other creative projects. Valerie met Lenny Pickett, former horn leader for Tower of Power and tenor player in the Saturday Night Live band, through a mutual friend when she was performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Lenny invited Valerie to accompany his group, The Borneo Horns, to Frankfurt, Germany. A few years later, in 1995, not long before Valerie began working on The Lion King, Lenny became the music director of the Saturday Night Live band and invited Valerie to join the group. NBC was considering cancelling the show, and Lenny wanted to add a percussionist to bring unusual sights and sounds to the stage as one way to help freshen things up. “It is a great honor and a pleasure to be part of the SNL team — creative, sensitive human beings with a healthy sense of humor, to get us through the inevitable surprises during the show’s production process,” Valerie says. “It makes me so grateful that I can be there as ‘the pit orchestra and rodeo clown’ [according to Lenny Pickett] to encourage people with music in the way that I strove to do as a child. The biggest privilege for me is to be able to apply the West African concepts of my great mentors on a beautiful percussion rig as I play 983-plus R&B, jazz, and original soul tunes in one of the longest running television bands on the planet.” Valerie has been a part of the SNL band for 26 years and counting.
NYU AND BEYOND
In addition to an astounding performance career, Valerie is also dedicated to music education, passing on the great gifts that she has been given. She has presented performances and workshops at several PASICs and at hundreds of schools, from public schools to universities and conservatories, since 1994, including at New York University’s Steinhardt School. In 2011, NYU percussion department head Jonathan Haas invited Valerie to the percussion faculty to direct the African Gyil and Percussion Ensemble, where she still teaches today. “I do my best to create the environment that so many artists — Godwin Agbeli, Kakraba Lobi, Kofi Missiso, Maestro Isaac Annoh — created for me,” Valerie says.” I am strict, yet each student artist can flourish without judgement. Ensemble members take on responsibility to each other and try to harness art as a language with which to serve each other and the community. In doing so, we strive to realize the kind of happiness that no kind of external position, fame, or fortune can give us. I try to let them know that I love them as comrades, as my future, and as creators of a world that vibrates with empathy and mutual respect.”
As the planet emerges from a global pandemic, Valerie hopes to continue connecting people through music. “Music is a great way to learn about the other side of the world,” she said in a 2021 MalleTALK podcast. “Now is a time for education…I want to teach for forever and five days, and connect cultures in any way I can.”
“African Styles in the Broadway Pit” by Valerie Naranjo. Percussive Notes, October 2003
“Batagyil: Valerie Naranjo with Africa’West” by Valerie Naranjo. Percussive Notes, September 2017
“My Introduction to the Gyil” by Valerie Naranjo. Percussive Notes, December 1998
Valerie Naranjo, “Breaking Boundaries” by Megan Arns, Rhythm! Scene, April 2015
Africa’West and Valerie Naranjo
Knock on Wood trailer
Saturday Night Live’s Valerie Naranjo on African Gyil at NYU Steinhardt
Valerie Naranjo performs “Gmeng See Naah Eee” on gyil
Valerie Naranjo (gyil) and Barry Olsen (kuar) perform “Darkpo III.
Valerie Naranjo performs “Fumaa Bwiche Naamwin Je” on gyil
Valerie Naranjo (gyil) and Barry Olsen (kuar) perform “Tom Kpuleya”
Valerie Naranjo performs “Darkpo II” on gyil