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 large music festivals. In the Bernard Woma Ensemble, Mr. Woma is joined by American multi-percussionist Prof. Mark Stone as well as master Ghanaian musicians from Bernard’s Dagara Music Center. The group has been featured in concert venues and universities throughout North America, Europe, and Africa. The Bernard Woma Ensemble can be heard on the Jumbie Records recording Bernard Woma in Concert.
Members of the Bernard Woma Ensemble are all professional performers in the Dagara tradition of Ghanaian music. Their primary instrument, the gyil, is a xylophone played by the Dagara people at funerals rituals, seasonal cultural festivals, religious ceremonies, and recreational celebrations. The gyilis 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 drumand other Ghanaian musical instruments. 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. These instruments are combined with Western orchestral instruments in Bernard Woma’s Gyil Jumbie Concerto and Gyil Yeru Concerto.
In 2008, The Bernard Woma Ensemble performed the world premiere of Gyil Jumbie Concerto, the first-ever concerto for gyil and orchestra. They performed this genre-bending work again in 2009 with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of its “Percussion Spectacular” Young People’s Concerts. The group’s thrilling combinations of Western and African musical traditions have been met with great excitement. Jim Bartsch, director of education for the Minnesota Orchestra, wrote, “Mr. Woma’s presentations at the concert as well as in schools were met with incredible enthusiasm from everyone.” A Carnegie Hall performance of Mr. Woma’s music was described as “rhythmically vital” by The New York Times and the group also presented a sold-out performance at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic.
The Ensemble continues to break new ground and was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra 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 ensembleperformed 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. In 2013, the ensemblepresented the European Premieres of both the Gyil Yeru Concerto and Gyil Jumbie Concerto with the Berliner Symphoniker in Berlin, Germany. This year, the group presented the African premieres of these concerti with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic in Durban, South Africa. The ensemble also regularly engages in community and educational outreach programs for all age groups including residencies at universities and colleges.
Mark Stone and Bernard Woma talk to us about tonight's concert and the music they'rebringing to the stagePosted by Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic on Thursday, May 21, 2015