While rooted in African tradition, the Bernard Woma Ensemble bridges Western orchestral music with the music and dance of West Africa. The ensemble’s combination of the gyil (West African xylophone) and other African percussion with Western orchestral instruments takes their unique music beyond its traditional context and into a global musical landscape. The group is a touring ensemble that features innovative new compositions for the gyil, as well as traditional West African repertoire.
Led by the Ghanaian composer and percussion virtuoso Bernard Woma, the ensemble is equally at home playing alongside a full orchestra, performing in an intimate concert venue, or taking part in a large festival. In the Bernard Woma Ensemble, Mr. Woma is joined by his musical protégés Mark Stone and Kofi Ameyaw and at times guest dancers from Ghana. The group has been featured in concert venues and universities throughout the United States, including a sold-out performance at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. The Bernard Woma Ensemble can be heard on the Jumbie Records recording “Bernard Woma in Concert.”
The three percussionists of the Bernard Woma Ensemble are all master performers in the Dagara tradition of Ghanaian music. Their primary instrument, the gyil, is a xylophone played by the Dagara people at funerals, seasonal festivals, religious ceremonies, and recreational gatherings. It is made of tuned wooden keys suspended on a wooden frame above gourd resonators. Spider egg-sack casings are stretched over holes cut in the gourds to give the instrument its distinctive buzzing sound. Also used by the ensemble are the kuor and aslatua. The kuor, a hand drum made by stretching a monitor lizard skin over the opening of a large gourd, is used to accompany Dagara xylophone music. The aslatua is a shaker made from two small gourds connected with a string; the sound is produced as they are struck against one another, spun around, and shaken. These instruments combine with Western orchestral instruments in Bernard Woma’s Gyil Jumbie Concerto and Gyil Yeru Concerto.
The Ensemble continues to break new ground in the orchestral world and was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra in 2011 to compose and perform a second concerto for gyil and orchestra. Writing for the Times Union, Priscilla McLean described the premiere of Gyil Yeru Concerto as, “The tour-de-force of the evening, a dynamic, exciting concerto....So successful was this that amid a standing ovation, the Woma ensemble played an encore, to loud acclaim”. In 2013 the group performed with the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. The orchestra’s education manager, Jason Shadle, wrote that “Our audience remained captivated by the West-African sounds and traditions of the group, and patron feedback was tremendously positive.”
The Bernard Woma Ensemble is excited to share their music with the world. Last year, the group presented the European Premieres of both the Gyil Yeru Concerto and Gyil Jumbie Concerto with the Berliner Symphoniker. This year, the group is thrilled to be presenting the African premieres of these concerti with the KwaZuluNatal Philharmonic.