Chennai gets a taste of native African music as Valerie Naranjo comes to town

Known for her prowess in playing the marimba, the world renowned percussionist talks about what shaped her music, native instruments, inspirations and more
Valerie Naranjo (Picture credit: J Maya Luz)
Valerie Naranjo (Picture credit: J Maya Luz)

Not many in the world can play the marimba (a West African keyboard) the way Valerie Naranjo does. Perhaps barring names like Gordon Stout, Leigh Howard Stevens and Eriko Daimo, pioneers of this instrument in the modern age. The percussionist from Southern Colorado comes to Pondicherry for a performance with students of the Bala Vidya Mandir School. This is a part of an initiative by LEAP (Leadership Engagement in Artistic Performance), an NGO that brings down acclaimed musicians who perform with children and encourage them to learn music. LEAP’s team consists of Srinivas Krishnan (of Global Rhythms World Music Ensemble fame), and others like Kalyanasundaram, Suresh Pattamadai, Baskar Subramanian, Shvetha Jaishankar, Debbie Thiagarajan, Bhairavi Jani and Atma Iye. Ahead of her performance, we spoke to Valerie about her music, inspirations and her future projects. 

Take us back to your first ever performance.

Singing traditional Native American songs into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, while my family listened with rapt attention.

Valerie playing the gyil (picture from YouTube)
Valerie playing the gyil (picture from YouTube)

Evolution of your music.

As a child, I sang the traditional songs of my father’s ute nation (native American), and after going through rigorous classical training, I fell in love with the traditional keyboard music of a Ghanaian instrument called gyil (pronounced ‘jeel’). My freelancing in New York City made me keenly aware of the direct connection that American R&B, jazz, and Latin music have with West African traditional music - not only in its rhythm, but harmonically as well. My latest compositions, specifically for the Cuban dance company Cutumba, reflect this connection.

SNL stage
SNL stage

New sounds and inspirations.

My instruments, though primarily from West Africa and America, are from all over the planet. My set up for Saturday Night Live itself consists of about 125 instruments! I believe that music has even more impact upon our spirit than it does for the mind and intellect. It is, in essence, a carefully assembled sound vibration, able to heal, purify, invigorate, initiate and conversely, able to destroy and denigrate if not filled with positive intention, so we must be careful when crafting and sharing music. 

When I was first initiated in the art of playing gyil in West Africa, I travelled to Ghana’s Upper West region and learnt from master Newiin Baaru of the Lobi nation of Ghana. Later, I took inspiration from my Buddhist practice to help me find the true intention of the music I compose or play.

Barry Olsen
Barry Olsen

As a performer in a band, I try to listen to my bandmates, especially the drummer and bass player, and then to fill in any shakra center or rhythmic component that might enhance. Sometimes I try to use literal sounds in a thematic way, for example bells to represent stars, rainstick to represent water, and such.

Your husband’s role in shaping your music.

As a composer, I am completing a long journey during which I was not confident to compose with the gyil. Imagine, I have had the fortune to study with the word’s greatest gyil masters, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing the art any justice. Now in 2017 I am moving ahead quickly and in earnest with gyil compositions. As a lyricist, I am most blessed with my husband, Barry Olsen, who is a gifted composer, so, as soon as I gained confidence to place words to some of his best pieces, the words began to flow. As a performer, I resumed study of Afro-Cuban drumming with maestro Roland Guerrero, from whom I commenced learning last December.

Practice venues.

This depends on what instrument and music I am playing. SNL rehearses at the famed 30 Rock Studio 8H. New York is filled with such wonderful spaces to practice. For my own musical ventures we have two studios in our home, one for ensemble rehearsal, and the other is my den with hundreds of percussion instruments embedded in the bedrock of our basement. My first and foremost accompanist for my solo project is Barry, who is also a gifted percussionist, pianist and trombonist.

On performing for Saturday Night Live and Broadway.

I personally find performing on Saturday Night Live more thrilling than in an opening night on Broadway. At University of Oklahoma (at Norman), the music, theatre, dance, and art schools were remarkably integrated. There, my activities in opera and musicals and in choral/orchestral works honed in me a love of musical theatre. You might say that these experiences have allowed me to experience the pinnacle of my classical musical study. Collaboration is, to me, the most wonderful way to create. When I am in collaboration with my comrade arrangers, composers, bandmates, costume, lighting and set designers, we expand each other, learn from each other, and enact the creative energy that is the essence of life itself.

Beyond Marimba.

The gyil (African marimba of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Cote D’Ivoire) may have left the deepest impression on me, yet the beautiful music of the voices and stringed instruments in Madagascar have enchanted me too. I joined Barry in Madagascar in 2006, as he was completing a US State Department tour. I was so enchanted by the marovany (suitcase lute) and vali (bamboo lute) that I studied about the instruments and learnt how to play them too.

Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain

Brush with Indian music.

I had the opportunity, in 1995, to tour with a percussion ensemble which included tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. Hearing Zakir every night was such an amazing experience. Early in my life in New York, Barry introduced me to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-so very spirited and spiritual! I am especially happy to be here now, so that I can experience more of Indian music.

On playing along with over 500 school students.

How will it be playing with that many students? I can’t wait to find out! This might be very difficult to coordinate in America, since students tend to be individualistic to the point of not being quite as patient nor as observant during such an event. My intention at Bala Vidya Mandir is to further the understanding that all of us can sing and play. In short, that music can be for everybody. 

I teach African gyil and percussion at New York University. Lately I have been involved in a NYU Global Institute of Advanced Studies project called Translucent Borders which explores dance and music’s capacity to transcend borders. I am honoured to have written for Cutumba, which is based out of Santiago de Cuba. A core group of young women led by Pooja Naarayan, Dhivya Ramanujam, Roopini Ravindran, Harsohena Jaggi and Nidhi Saraogi are rehearsing four movements of that piece, called Tierra Pura (Land of Purity). I cannot wait to see how all of us will sing these new pieces together. The wonderful Cuban artists in Cutumba are already very excited.

Pic courtesy:
Pic courtesy:

Projects to look forward to.

I am most excited about  Joro, a series of six concerti that I have produced for gyil and symphony orchestra. It features a marriage of European and West African music. Hiring and rehearsing a 60-85-piece orchestra is no easy task, but I am confident about the outcome. At present, the National Symphony of Ghana is interested to perform this piece - this ‘marriage at the source’ would be most exciting. After recording 13 CDs in 12 years between 1999 and 2011, the next CD, which will feature these concerti, has been a long time coming. The piece with Cutumba is more a short-term project that began in January.

Where are you performing next after Chennai’s show?

Apart from five SNL shows and about 12 Broadway episodes, my next performances are in the Fidanze Festival in mid-April in Santiago de Cuba, both with Cutumba, and as a soloist. The following one will be a two-day deep solo journey for me and the audience in San Francisco; then I’m back to Cuba in May for Havana’s Cubadisco Festival.

Pic courtesy:
Pic courtesy:

Favourite musicians who have inspired you.

Kakraba Lobi, my gyil mentor, is surely my favorite. Other African musicians include D’Gary and Tarika Sammy of Madagascar, Chitayeer Yarded, the late Obo Addy and his brother Mustapha Tetley Addy of Ghana, the wonderful djembe virtuoso Adama Drame of Cote D’Ivoire, Vusi Mahlasela and Herbie Tsoaeli of South Africa.

Your other hobbies.

Barry and I love to ski. It makes me feel as if I know a little something about flying, and it makes the long winter season so very friendly. I love visual art too. Whenever I travel I love to explore how visual artists define their place in the world, ethnically, time-wise, and community-wise.

Check out her music on​

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