School of Traditional Culture

Bernard Woma – A master of the Ghanaian Xylophone



Bernard Woma earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies with minors in History and Arts Administration from the State University of New York at Fredonia, (May 2008), and two Masters degrees in African Studies and Folklore & Ethnomusicology at Indiana University (2012 and 2015). He has an extensive teaching career and entrepreneurial experience in world music and special projects. Additionally, Bernard maintains a distinguished performing career in African percussion and dance. His life experiences as a music director, a lecturer in US universities, and as the founder and director of a private school for the study of African music and dance [The Dagara Music Center DMC in Ghana], all contribute to his outstanding contribution to music education and community youth empowerment.


Since the establishment of the DMC in 1999, Bernard has acquired valuable experience in building supportive communities, including the staffing and training from within his culture to the hundreds of students and faculty members that have done residencies at the DMC. Every year, the DMC is host to groups of students and faculty from a broad spectrum of universities, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. Bernard’s leadership and vision supports a friendly and collegial learning environment. Participants at the DMC engage in exactly the wide range of social, cultural, and educational services that are focused on building the individual’s potential for self-development. Bernard has the understanding of the many concerns of young people and college-age students as well as the experience in leading them to self-empowerment through education as the only way to addressing their socio-economic concerns.


Through the International Studies and the School of Music programs at SUNY Fredonia, Bernard produced many independent cultural events on campus and in the community. As a graduate student in the African Studies Program and the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, he worked in various capacities as the outreach artist in public schools (K-12), colleges, universities, and Army bases. Indeed, he played a very active role in the African Studies Program, as well as with other departments in developing special programs and campus-community activities. While at Indiana University, he collaborated with the African-American Arts Institute leading programs such as the annual Family Night program; the fall Potpourri concert series for many years; the African Studies Languages Culture Night programs; the IU campus-community partnership for cultural/educational programs known as the “Spring Shuttle” for under-represented populations as well as the anti-bullying awareness programs. In addition, he worked in collaboration for the annual Black History Month celebrations; and for the Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs (DEMA) study abroad program events both in Bloomington, Indiana and in Ghana.


Since 1998, he has taught courses on African music and dance as an Associate Instructor in many universities and colleges across the United States and elsewhere. He has also presented scholarly papers and lecture demonstrations at international conferences including the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in 2004, 2009, 2013; the African Studies Association Conference, 2012; the Africa Network Conference on Teaching Pedagogies, 2011; and the Society for Ethnomusicology Conference (SEM), 1994, 2013 and 2014. Bernard has composed and directed music for African dance as well as modern and contemporary dance programs in Ghana, Denmark and the United States. Bernard’s on-going professional performance career began several decades prior to his academic pursuits, and the two paths continue to merge. In 1989, he joined the Ghana Dance Ensemble at the University of Ghana as the solo gyil (xylophone) artist and subsequently from 1992-2004, became the Master Drummer and Music Director for the National Dance Company of Ghana at the National Theatre. Since 1997, he has been the Artistic Director of Saakumu Dance Troupe of Ghana, and since 2008, he has single handedly advertised, promoted, and organized successful annual international tours for the dance troupe in Africa and the United States. His professional profile details the numerous programs that his has led, participated in, and helped to establish in four continents since 1990.


Bernard has shared the performance stage with renowned artists such as Maya Angelou, Yo Yo Ma, and Glen Velez. He has performed for international dignitaries and presidents such as U. S. president Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II. He was honored as the cultural resource person for President Barack Obama’s family when they visited Ghana in 2009. He is a true cultural treasure from Ghana who has toured the world as xylophonist and lead drummer of the National Dance Company of Ghana. Indeed, Bernard is an extremely dynamic artist and deeply experienced educator. His recent appearances in the US include a performance with New York Philharmonic at the Avery Fisher, Lincoln Center, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Albany Symphony Orchestra, New York, Warren Orchestra, Detroit, Michigan, the Berliner Symphoniker, Berlin Germany, and the KwaZulu-Natal Symphony Orchestra in Durban South Africa. He has done residencies with many universities and colleges across the United States as well as performances with major performing ensembles such as the Ethos Percussion group, Jumbie Records, and teaching at New York’s AXF: African Xylophone Festival. The performance of his composition “Gyil Nyog Mε Na” in the spring of 2006 at Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall is a testimony of his musicianship. Bernard has also performed and toured with the National Dance Company of Ghana to Britain, Denmark, Germany, The Netherland, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, South America, and many African countries.  Bernard is a Partner and Co-Founder of Jumbie Records; the Artistic Director of Saakumu Dance Troupe, and the founder and director of the Dagara Music and Arts Center in Accra, Ghana.


From a traditional background, Bernard is from the Gbannε clan of the Dagara people. He was born in the village of Hiineteng, located in Northwestern Ghana, near the border with Burkina Faso. His father noticed that, as a newborn, Bernard’s hands were clenched in fists, as if he was clutching xylophone mallets. His father consulted with a village spiritual elder who informed him that Bernard’s hands indicated that he was destined to become a Gyil player. His father purchased a pair of xylophones for his infant son. Consequently, Bernard began playing the gyil when he was two years old. At age five, Bernard was introduced to Ziem Tibo, a gyil maker and player who became Bernard’s mentor and spiritual guide. Tibo taught Bernard how to build and “purify” a new xylophone as well as the history, mysteries and customs associated with the gyil musical tradition. Bernard soon became known for his musical abilities and was asked to play at funerals and weddings throughout the Upper West Region of Ghana. Preoccupied with farm work and xylophone playing, Bernard did not begin school until he was ten years old. An older brother had to convince their father that Bernard was very bright and should go to school. Reluctantly, his father agreed, provided that Bernard would continue to work at the farm before and after school and his brothers would pay for the school uniforms and school fees.


Bernard quickly absorbed the school lessons and jumped several grades ahead. At the same time, he played the gyil at community social rituals and in the local Catholic Church. The Dagara people play the gyil in church worship music much as the Westerners play the organ. Through these musical activities, he began to set his own words to traditional melodies and compose his own music. In 1982, when Bernard had almost finished his schooling, he had no means to continue paying school fees and moved to the capital city of Accra to earn money. There, he found a job as a steward with a wealthy Ghanaian family. He worked seven days a week from 4 am until midnight. Occasionally, he was given some free time on Sunday evenings. On these special nights, he would go to Mamobi, a section of Accra where many Dagara people live and gather to socialize. There, he played the gyil for traditional Dagara dancing and became well-known in the community. From these performances, Bernard’s musical reputation spread. He came to the attention of Professor Mawere Apoku and Francis Nii- Yartey, former directors of the Ghana Dance Ensemble then at the University of Ghana, and Ghana’s National Dance Company at the National Theatre of Ghana. Bernard was offered the position of solo xylophonist. He passed the tenure period and has been a valued member since 1989. In 1990, he was honoured with the “Drummer of the Year” award, the only time such an award has been given to a percussionist. Through his work with the Ghana Dance Ensemble, he has traveled widely and developed proficiency with other traditional Ghanaian instruments. In 1992, the Company moved from the University of Ghana to the National Theatre. Bernard retained his title as solo xylophonist and was also appointed as the Master Drummer of the company.


Bernard maintains a busy schedule on four continents. He frequently performs with his traditional Bεwaa ensemble, the Saakumu Dance Troupe throughout the world. In January 1999, he was invited to become a guest lecturer at the State University of New York at Fredonia and since then, he has been in residencies as adjunct faculty or Guest Artist in many universities and colleges throughout the United States. He continues to hold his honorable position as the ceremonial Atumpan Drummer for Ghanaian State functions and he still provides workshops, lectures and one-on-one lessons with musicians throughout Europe and America.