Interview: Bex Burch, Vula Viel – Do Not Be Afraid (March 2019)

We are lucky enough to have been in touch with musicians who love their job and can freely play what they like without constrictions or limitations imposed by the industry, labels, managers, agents, and so on and so forth…

One of the latest outcomes of this blessing is Do Not Be Afraid, the second release of Vula Viel, a London-based trio led by gyil (Ghanaian xylophone) player Bex Burch.

Do Not Be Afraid is indeed a bright and vibrant case of musical freedom, in which its author and performers have put their hearts and souls into the tunes they have written and played without reserve, creating a multi-faceted work, ranging from the West African (North-West Ghanaian) tradition to jazz, and from minimalism to noise rock, Congotronics and avant-garde.

Do Not Be Afraid is also an intimate album, not simply because the musicians involved have bared themselves in it, but also because its main inspiration is Bex Burch’s personal life and experiences: her Ghanaian years as much as her London life, her family as much as her colleagues from the music scene, and overseas influences.

It’s all in there, in the 32 minutes and eight chapters constituting the second discographic effort of the band, which rhythmically strike and ‘Well Come’ you from the first relentless beats and keep you close until the last reassuring notes of ‘We Are‘.

Instead of our usual review, we wanted to connect with Do No Be Afraid in a different and more exhaustive way. And in view of the upcoming listening session at Grow Hackney (scheduled for Sunday 10th March), we had a quick introductory chat with Bex Burch about the album.

Despite being published only a few weeks ago, Do Not Be Afraid’s project goes a long way back, even before the band’s debut album (Good Is Good) was released.

“The project properly started two years ago, even if some of the tunes come from 2016, when we put out Good is Good, or even before that. That’s when some of the things started coming. But in January 2017, I properly went ‘right, these are the tunes, this is the album, let’s make it’. And even if they weren’t finished, I had something. Once I decided to do it, it didn’t take too long”.

If, on one side, Bex brought the ingredients to the table, the Do Not Be Afraid recipe is the result of a shared cooking process, in which every musician and the producer added their skills. 

“When I listened and re-listened to the tunes, I was and I am aware of what I brought. Where the songs are now is very different from what I brought, and that’s because of working with Jim [Hart], Ruth [Goller] and Matt Calvert who produced the album. Being the composer and bandleader, you have to start somewhere, and the things I brought are of course really important for the tunes, but the album as it is now is more than I could have done on my own. I think that’s such a nebulous thing of how a band works and how a band makes music. It’s really hard to talk about, but I know Ruth, Jim and Matt now, and if the album sounds like that, it’s because of the four of us”.

The journey that led to Do Not Be Afraid has helped Vula Viel to become a more cohesive band.

“What’s exciting now, after having put together the album with Ruth and Jim and going forward, is that I’m really starting to figure out what each of us bring to Vula Viel’s sound. At first, I was unsure, but now I feel that we’re building the foundations, the skeletons for what the band is going to become. All I know is, when I’m listening to the album now, I know that I didn’t make that on my own. I feel that the music is collective, but at the same time, I have to specify that it’s different from a collective project, because it was very much my say at the end of the day about what we used of the ideas coming from everyone. That’s not to say that’s good or bad either, but it’s different from a collective project. I have a lot of respect for collectives, but I feel that it’s super hard to work that way”.

One of the things that immediately “catch the ear” about Do Not Be Afraid is the presence of lyrics, not only because they are something new in Vula Viel compositions, but also because of their meanings.

“Part of the reason why there are so many lyrics on this album, even if I still maintain it is an instrumental album with vocals, is that I went through a loss in the family, and I was thinking about what I’ve been given from my dad and mom especially, and my wider family. So, a lot of the meanings and some of the lyrics are actually about that. Like in ‘Fire‘, there’s a haiku that says:

“A gift to know you,

Feel loved even when I fall,

Or fail or forget.”

That’s a haiku to my dad because he wrote me a haiku one day when he was on the beach.

The five and seven in a haiku are really important numbers, as much as in rhythm. I learnt about the rhythm from West African music, and to find it again in another place in the world like Japan is amazing”.

Another crucial feature of the album, which becomes apparent as soon as you read its track-list, is its relation to the elements.

“There’s also the theme of the elements, and they go through the album, starting from water in the first song “Well Come”, which is a grounding element for me. When I swim or especially go in the ocean, water grounds me. Or, for example, when I’m sitting down, the first thing I want to do is to get a drink. The same when someone visits me at my house, I offer them a cup of tea; that’s water. That’s the starting element.

Then, there’s fire. I also called the song ‘Fire’, so it’s a bit more explicit. That tune is about burning through the ego and the bullshit, and how creative destruction can be.

Then, there’s air, related to ‘Breathe the Air‘. Then, there’s Earth, which is in ‘We Are’, which is also my response to my father’s haiku. There’s also one of my father’s poems in the fourth track ‘Inside Mirror‘, which he wrote in 1979″.

Talking about influences that inspired the album, Bex has some clear ideas and is even clearer in relation to how those influences have addressed and are addressing her music.

“The musical influences of this album are really narrow. Of course, everything that has made me interested in music is an influence, including Peter Zummo, Steve Reich, Beethoven, the Dagaare forms and structures. Those forms and structures have given me the opportunity to start creating and writing.

Good is Good was about putting all the traditional music that Thomas Segkura taught me into Western instruments and finding my sound. But that was not my music. While Do Not Be Afraid is a small step towards figuring out what about the Dagaare music resonates with me as a non-Dagaari. In all of these small steps, I guess I’m asking myself what about music resonates with me.

Bringing in other influences, not just the Dagaare, but also Zummo, Led Zeppelin or any band that I really like, it’s not just taking stuff from them and putting them into my tunes, but it’s asking myself what resonates with me about that music, and what music is trying to come out of me. 

When I was writing Do Not Be Afraid, that was what I was asking myself, and now, having written it and put it out, the answer has moved on a bit. Like anything, we continuously expand as people. We grow up, we can’t grow down. We have more capacity to do more. What you’re doing now, five years ago you would have found impossible. And musically, the things I’m doing now, I can only do them having been where I have come from. That’s really exciting. It means that I’m not ashamed of what I had put out, because that brought me to where I am”.

The next step for Vula Viel and the growth of their “second born” is the live dimension, to perform Do Not Be Afraid in front of an audience. The baptism of fire happened on 24th January at Café OTO, where Vula Viel where on stage with no less than Peter Zummo.

“We haven’t played much live. Our tour is actually starting on 25th March, and we are raring to go. But we already did one show at Café OTO, which was like a celebration; the music and the band finding each other, me stepping back and enjoying Ruth and Jim, with Peter Zummo playing in a couple of our tunes.

It was great to have Peter there too. I was hugely honoured to have him saying that he was up for it and to have him there. I’ve been in touch with him since August, and we were sending each other little bits of writing, essentially via Sibelius, sharing ideas. Then, I went to meet him in in New York in early January. We were going to do some writing together and rehearse, which I guess it was, but we ended up talking, because he’s got so many stories to tell. He was talking about how he sees composition and how he sees it like a storytelling process, like making a film.  

Playing with him was awesome, and it was really different from other open performances I’ve done. I’ve turned up and played with people I’ve never met and enjoyed that exploration and conversation, while with Peter, it was different. He’s an elder. He inspired me to ask myself ‘How open can I be?’. He was leading, I guess, but in a really different way than when I lead. His openness, that’s what inspired me. I think that’s something about playing with the elders that is different. It’s something that we don’t do enough; for sure I don’t do it enough”.

On Sunday (10th March), don’t miss the opportunity to discover even more about Do Not Be Afraid, when Bex Burch will be our guest at Grow Hackney for the first appointment with Meet & Greet with the Album.

And join the band in their upcoming UK Tour:
– Mon 25 March – Druidstone Hotel, Pembrokeshire
– Tue 26 March – The Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
– Wed 27 March – The Welfare, Ystradgynlais
– Thu 28 March – Cube Microplex, Bristol
– Fri 29 March – St George’s Bristol (talk)
– Sat 30 March – Mount Pleasant Ecological Park, Cornwall
– Mon 1 April – Cobbett Road Library, Southampton
– Wed 3 April – Northern Quarter, Huddersfield
– Thu 4 April – Yellow Arch Studios, Sheffield
– Fri 5 April – CUBE at Déda, Derby
– Sat 6 April – The Rosehill, Brighton
– Sun 5 May – Parabola Arts Cheltenham Jazz Festival
– Sat 1 June – Kings Place, London


Photo ©: Monika Jakubowska