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Grammy-Winning Percussionist Pernell Saturnino Is Versatile

Hailing from Curaçao, Pernell Saturnino can play music from a variety of countries.

Pernell Saturnino
Pernell Saturnino has taken the percussive sounds of Curaçao to audiences around the world. Selwyn de Wind

Percussionist Pernell Saturnino has won a Grammy Award, performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, toured the world, and played with such stars as Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea. To what does the Curaçao native credit his long career and in-demand status?

“When you need a percussionist to play music from Cuba, you have to call a Cuban percussionist. When you need someone to play music from Brazil, you call a Brazilian percussionist,” he says. “But then they found me, and I can play them all.”

Descended from a long line of musicians, Saturnino cut his musical teeth on the tambu, the traditional drum of Curaçao, and played his first professional gig at age 8 with his uncle’s ensemble. By age 18, he was touring the world with Nos Antias, the island’s best-known folkloric group.

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A degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston further burnished his credentials, and before long, he was regularly playing at Lincoln Center and other venues far and wide.

But home was where his heart was, so he returned to Curaçao and opened a percussion school for children. “I wanted to give something back at home,” he says. “It’s nice to see the children develop and become something. When someone you taught achieves that skill, it’s like seeing yourself onstage.” 

How does it feel when you’re in the zone during a performance? That is the reason you practice and become a good musician. Because the more people you see enjoying what you’re doing, the more you enjoy yourself. It’s a great feeling.  

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You’ve won many awards, but how did it feel to win Curaçao’s top cultural award, the Cola Debrot Prize? It was amazing. Sometimes when artists are very well-known elsewhere, they have a harder time at home. That prize meant even more because it came from my home.

Pernell’s Top Picks in Willemstad

Purunchi Koredor: I’m crazy for fish and go here often. It’s right next to the sea. You can sometimes see the fish coming in fresh from the boat.  

Kome: I like the variety on the menu—good meat, really great fish. The pasta is especially good.  

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La Hacienda Olivia Plantation: It’s a restaurant that’s attractive for families. There are farm animals and a playground. On the weekends, you can hear live music.

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