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 xylophone 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 xylophone 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 night and Tibo taught Bernard the mysteries associated with the gyil.
Bernard performing with Saakumu Dance Troupe
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 the uniform and school fees.
Bernard quickly absorbed the school lessons and jumped several grades ahead. At the same time, he played the gyil at the local Catholic Church. (The Dagara people play the xylophone in church worship music much as the Westerners play the organ.) There 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. There, he played the gyil for traditional Dagara dancing and became well-known in the community.
From these performances, his musical reputation spread. He came to the attention of Professor Apoku and Frances Nii-Yartey, former and current directors of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, Ghana's National Dance Company. 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 three continents! He frequently performs with his traditional Bewaa ensemble, the Saakumu Dance Troupe. In January 1999, he was invited to become a guest lecturer at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He gives 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. Bernard 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.
Bernard owns and operates a school of traditional African music and arts in a northern suburb of Accra, called the Dagara Music Center. Find out more about Bernard's music and art school.