African music groups remember lost friend

Members of the WVU African Music and Dance Ensemble jump in the air as they perform Sunday afternoon at the Falbo Theatre in the Creative Arts Center.

Maybe it’s appropriate that one has to burrow down a hidden stairway and freight elevator to get to the Falbo Theater in WVU’s Creative Arts Center.

That’s because the music that emerged from the intimate performance space  Sunday afternoon was deeply rooted in joy and purity.

The annual February concert by the WVU African Music and Dance Ensemble, and its sister Afrobeat Ensemble, honored the memory of a longtime friend to the university’s international music community.

“Remembering Bernard Woma,” was the name of the program that honored the frequent visitor and artist-in-residence who lost a battle with cancer last April at the age of 51.

Woma was a virtuoso on the Gyil (pronounced JEE-lee) a xylophone-type instrument predominant in his native Ghana.

His talent on the instrument allowed him to share stages with musicians and thinkers from Yo Yo Ma and Maya Angelou.

Woma’s fans include U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II.

Numbered along his musical disciples is WVU African Music and Dance Ensemble Director Michael Vercelli, who studied with Woma both in Morgantown and Ghana.

“This one is extra-special,” Vercelli said of the performance.

While he misses his friend, he said, it’s still hard to work up sadness. Woma wouldn’t allow it, he said, smiling as he and ensemble members waited in the wings to go on.

Woma, his pupil said, was all about simply submitting the moment and the music.

“There’s just all this joyful noise,” Vercelli said.

“That’s what’s great about our ensemble. Half the kids who come out every semester aren’t music majors. They just want to do it.”

WVU’s six-piece Afro-beat Ensemble opened the concert with “Water No Get Enemy,” a driving tune by Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

It was Kuti who created Afrobeat  in the 1970s in Nigeria —  when he blended West African rhythms with American jazz and other sources.

Tanner Davis, who pulled a couple of saxophone solos in the song, is WVU graduate student in music from Charleston said he likes the genre  simply because it parades its influences with glee.

American bepop and jazz.

World fusion.

And every other deeper, swirling genre out there, he said.

He hears fellow sax players John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in the world mix, he said, but don’t ask him to chart specific favorites.

“I can’t name ‘em all,” he said, grinning. “That’s the beauty of it.”

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