Bernard Woma – A master of the Ghanaian Xylophone


Bernard Woma 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. 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, the Berliner Symphoniker in Berlin Germany, and the KwaZulu-Natal Symphonu 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, The Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC), the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), and teaching at New York’s AXF: African Xylophone Festival. The performance of his composition “Gyil Nyog Me 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.  Since 2008, Bernard’s dance company, The Saakumu Dance Troupe has been touring the United States with captivating performances and educational programs in American schools and public venues. Bernard is 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.

Bernard Woma is from the Gbanne 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 elder who informed him that Bernard’s hands indicated that he was destined to become a Gyil player [a West African Dagara xylophone]. 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 guide. Tibo taught Bernard how to build and “purify” a new xylophone. They played late in the nights and Tibo taught Bernard the history and mysteries 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 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 Bewaa 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 provides workshops, lectures and one on one lessons with musicians throughout Europe and America. He also continues to be a principal member of the National Dance Company of Ghana and has been the ceremonial Atumpan Drummer for Ghanaian State functions. Bernard was honored to perform for Bill Clinton and Jerry Rawlings, when the US President visited the Ghanaian president in Accra in 1993.

Bernard is the Founder and Director of the Dagara Music Center.


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