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Zie Mwea (Natural Conditions)
Ancient Keyboard Music of West Africa
Music for Gyil, Kuar, Voices and Dancing.

An interview with Bernard Woma and Valerie Naranjo

Q: How did you and Bernard meet?
Valerie: We met Bernard during his first journey to the United States. Barry had spied a program in the Percussive Arts Society local newsletter speaking about Bernard Woma - xylophone player from Ghana. “Sounds like another person from Kakraba’s camp” I said. We arranged to meet him as soon as possible. That was four years ago. Last Spring we deciided to celebrate our years of playing together as a trio by recording this CD.

Q: In your own words tell me about your instrument.
Bernard Woma: This is our Ghanaian xylophone that we call Gyil. It is made by my people called the Dagara people, who are from the Upper-west region of Ghana. Dagara people speak different dialects, and the Gyil music that we play varies from dialect to dialect, depending upon whether one lives in Lawra, Jirapa, Nandom, or Birifor.

Q: How did you come to play the gyil?
Bernard Woma: I was born to play the gyil.

Q: How do you know that?
Bernard Woma: When I came out of my mother’s womb my fingers were clenched the way they are when you play the instrument. That was a sign that I would be a gyil player, so I started playing when I was two years old.

Q: Who was your teacher?
Bernard Woma: When I was growing up in the village there was a gyil maker this close to my house. (He shows a tiny space between two fingers.) , so I used to go over there and learn how to make the instrument by watching the way he worked. I also learned to play by ear. So that guy, I call him my gyil father. He not only taught me how to make the xylophone, but also how to purify it. The gyil is inhabited by spirits, so we learn how to purify it so that it can be respected as a spiritual medium.

Q: When you were a little boy where did you play?
Bernard Woma: From age two untilo age five I played at home. Then I began to play for the community when we used to gather in the moonlight and play recreational music to make ourselves happy, or during the harvest. Then the community saw that I had promise so they made me play in the funeral when I was seven years old. Normally a child doesn’t just go and play at such an occasion. When I did play usually my father or my xylophone father would sit with me, and say “go ahead,. I’m behind you.”

Q: Where did you live then?
Bernard Woma: I lived in the village of Hineteng.

Q: How did you come to Accra?
Bernard Woma: After I finished my primary education I came to Accra to continue my secondary education, however for a time I was unable to do so, so I decided to play music with the Dagara musicians who had migrated to Accra. By and by the University of Ghana was looking for a gyil player for the Ghana Dance Ensemble and that is how I was invited to audition. When I passed the audition I began to work for the National Dance Company of Ghana as their gyil soloist.

Q: You play other instruments as well?
Bernard Woma: Yes, when I joined the National Dance Company I began to play other Ghanaian instruments because the National Dance Company is the cultural ambassador of the country , so once you are there, you need to play other things. Now I am able to play the master drum parts of the drums of other Ghanaian cultures. Since 1992 they have made me the master drummer of the company.

Q: So where have you travelled with the National Dance Company?
Bernard Woma: I have been to England,Denmark, Indonesia, Korea, Japan,Germany, the U.S., MartiniQ:ue, and other African countries such as Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire. you know playing around.

Q: Any favorite place?
Bernard Woma: The United States (smile)

Q: What have you been up to during your residencies here in the US?
Bernard Woma: I’ve been teaching African drumming, African music in general, given presentations, lectures and master classes; and assisted Professor Kay Stonefeld at the annual ethnomusicology conference in Bloomington, Indiana last year. I’ve also taught at several colleges and universities here.

Q: I understand that you have a school.
Bernard Woma: Yes, now I have my own music school, where I am going to start teaching African dance, music, arts and culture.

Q: Where is that school?
Bernard Woma: It is about a half hour outside of Accra. At the moment I have alot of students from Europe and America. My aim is to teach young African children, encouraging them to learn their music and dance, because we have to keep our tradition. In the old days we used to do that. But now in the city, you have to encourage the young ones. Otherwise, they just end up watching T.V. So I plan to recruit them through their parents, suggesting that they rehearse with me every weekend. My intention is to teach more people.

Q: What words of encouragement would you give to young American students who would like to study African music?
Bernard Woma: You have to want to play this music before you approach it. Then you will understand it better. I once had a two week residency with pre-schoolers in up-state New York. I really enjoyed teaching those preschoolers, because they really listened and got EVERYTHING. I think that it’s very important to listen carefully to any music in order to be able to begin to grasp the language.


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