Interview: Bex Burch – Vula Viel (June 2017)

Even for a music scene as varied and unpredictable as London’s, Vula Viel are an exception. It might already be surprising to meet, listen to and enjoy a band comprised of London born and bred musicians playing traditional Ghanaian music. If you add the fact that they play that music (the one of Dagaaba people in Northern Ghana) in the organic and convincing way that natives do, then you have a unique and stimulating cultural experience.

A few weeks ago, before the Vula Viel show at Jazz Café and in view of the forthcoming Total Refreshment Centre gig, we spoke to Bex Burch, founder and inspirational drive of the project. She told us why and how she felt so in love with Ghana and its music and guided us through Vula Viel’s adventure.

I was speaking with a friend recently and I realised that there was something about the West African rhythms that deeply attracted me when I was a child. Before I even knew where Africa was, I was used to going to North Yorkshire for holidays; it was when I was around 7. There was a guy doing the dry-stone walling in the countryside and he had a djembe. He taught us some rhythms and I simply went mad: I loved it! So, there was something even then that was already resonating in me.

But then, at school, people didn’t even know what a djembe was because it wasn’t popular as much as now. So, when I went to secondary school, I bought my first djembe and took that to my class, telling them: ‘hey, this is a djembe, can we have lessons?’ They said no, but I could have percussions lessons instead, like classical percussion and drum kit. Since then, I kind of forgot that djembe was the reason why I got into West African music”.

Since then, West African music and Ghanaian in particular never abandoned Bex’s life…

When I went into college, I re-discovered West African music through Steve Reich. I was influenced by his percussion music and drumming with rhythms that are related to the bell pattern music from the Ewe tribe in Ghana. I got really into his style and that’s why I wanted to go to Ghana. I met him a couple of times and we played together. Apparently, Steve always wanted to go and live in Ghana for a longer time, but he never did that. So, for me it was something like: ‘I’m going to do that!’ Because of timing and the fact that I was really, really lucky to meet the right people, I had the opportunity to go there when I was 19. I finally met a Ghanaian musician from Orchestra Porter at Guildhall and when I was getting into Steve Reich, he was like ‘Bex you’ll love Ghana’. So I went with him to see his family and stay there for a month. It was really hard the first time; it almost went under my skin.  

Culturally it was a completely different experience. Because I was young and still a bit immature I had to deal with so many new things, like the language for example. The grammar is really command based and I felt like people were shouting at me. As an English white girl, that was a bit shocking. There was part of me that also recognised that I was too immature to understand that stuff. That made me even hungrier to go back for a longer time and figure out what the music was about because I already got a glimpse of the music. So, I went back for 9 months, I took a year off and started doing research for a book and travelled around. In that time, I travelled to the North and met the Dagaaba tribe. I also met my future teacher Thomas Segkura, and then I visited the Ewe tribe, where each person sits and plays one drum and one part. Although it would be foolish to say that I could just play their music straight away, I kind of understood it and I knew that I could get there. While, when I went to the North, I got in touch with the gyil and listened to that music. It was like: ‘Wow, what’s happening here?’ There was something about the music that really attracted me and made me want to go and study it. I wanted to spend a long time there and study that particular music. I think that if I have to indicate a moment when I understood and had a sort of revelation about my music, I think it was then when I met the gyil.

I had that in my head and I was convinced to go back and stay there for at least two years to study. I was really lucky because when I was back I finished my degree and I won a scholarship for two years. Most people use it to go to Paris or Japan and study in a Conservatoire, but I decided to go back to Ghana and stay with the gyil for that period. It’s amazing now to think back and realise what I was doing; playing and writing for an instrument that isn’t part of my original culture and also feeling a sort of ownership of that instrument. Thomas, my teacher, noticed that from the beginning, even if I was rubbish he noticed that I had the hunger to be a gyil player. It was hard and complex because the xylophone master had to play different parts at once. But I was also incredibly lucky to be Thomas’ apprentice, the only one because he passed away six months after I passed my apprentice graduation. He was a real living legend”.

The true challenge for Bex was to bring everything back home and start something of a new life the UK. 

Obviously it makes really great stories to talk about Ghana, but for me, the test was to move from my student reality to the performer and teacher one. When I’m writing now I don’t feel that I’m teaching music, but I’m sharing it and there’s a responsibility with that. This side of the story is hugely important and has to do with coming home and being in my own country, which took me a long time because that was a difficult transition. I lived a long part of my life in Ghana and when I came back I found it pretty difficult to understand what I wanted to do. I recognise that one of the reasons I went to Ghana was to run away and that served me because it happened at a perfect time in my life. However, when I got back, I realised that I was immature to do that. I needed to come back to my home and my family and put my roots down in my own country. I wanted to understand why I was running away. Coming back and making the band was another stage of my growing up process and becoming a more responsible human being. The transition took time: when I came back I couldn’t even live in London straight away. I got a teaching percussion job, but I had to move to Brighton, where I was also busking. In some way, I knew what kind of music I wanted to play, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. 

Forming a band gave me a new perspective on bandleaders, I have a huge respect for musicians and it took a lot of inner work to do that. That sort of downtime when I came back from Ghana was a sort of uncomfortable period. I didn’t know who I was, but I recognise that this side of it was really important. Creatively speaking, there’s a journey of going down, reaching to the bottom and realising that music is the last resort. It’s when there’s no choice that you start writing and the music gets going. At a certain point, I felt hungry. Busking and teaching was great, but that wasn’t my future. So I felt hungry and ambitious and I also think that without the downtime, I could have never felt like that. It took like a year and a half to figure everything out and come back and I’m so glad I did that because I feel that this is what I’m meant to be doing.

I felt it for the first time during a gig; there was a moment during a show with the band a couple of years ago when something happened and I felt so uplifted. I felt that I was driving that process, music was facilitating it, but I was allowing the music out there and I realised that ‘this is what I was meant to be doing’. From that point there was no going back: I fully committed to it and it became my job. I had to learn and I’m still developing new skills and putting aside some others, like for example my percussion training. I learnt about managing a band, booking gigs, working with designers and engineers…there are so many different aspects to take care of when you run a band, but the energy to do this and share the music with other people is endless because, as I said, that’s what I’m meant to be doing. I feel that I’m doing my perfect job and I go on with it making mistakes and learning from them”.

As much as with her life, it was also inevitable that Bex’s relationship and approach to music changed in those years…

There’s been a huge change in making my music. The first album came out and I’m really proud of it, but there has been a really huge change since making it in October 2015. Good is Good is composed of music that was given to me. There’s this way of thinking in Ghana that everything that the masters teach to their apprentices becomes ‘of’ the apprentices: they own it. It is like what they give you is yours and all you give them is theirs. It was a real exchange because they gave me the music and I gave them my money. So, when we released the album, the music was out of my head too. Since then, everything changed, because the album we are writing and producing now is going to be about the music that I’m writing. That’s where my head is at the moment. I love Good is Good, because I think it is an awesome album, but I don’t want to tour that for the next three years. As a matter of fact, I’m excited about my new music now. We recently started playing our new songs during our gigs and we are thrilled about that. It felt like they were our first gigs once again because we were a bit scared too. At the same time, I’m sure that when the next album comes out, I’ll be already focussing my attention on the following one”.

Another crucial step in her new ‘life’ as bandleader and composer is related to meanings: how to translate Ghanaian music for a UK audience and include original lyrics.

I’m thinking about meaning a lot, especially now that I’m writing my own lyrics. With the old songs, it was kind of strange because some of them were also sexist, but I wasn’t thinking about that at that time. It was more about playing the tunes. While now it’s becoming more and more important to me. I’m teaching and doing workshops for whole classrooms full of kids, and at some point, we do some kind of composition. They are children between 7 and 10 years old and they bring the pop songs they like. To be honest, at times, I’m shocked about the meaning of the words they use in pop music at the moment. Going through them and choosing the appropriate ones, it’s really hard. They can have really uplifting chorus’ inviting you to believe in yourself and so on, but then the verse is just a throwaway comment like ‘girl you’ll love it’, ‘you gonna get it’ and similar. So there’s this thing about treating and referring to women as, essentially sex toys. Sadly, pop music language is about that, and even when women sing the songs, they are about finding the right man and happiness will follow. It’s shocking that people put their name behind those lyrics. That also makes me sad for children, to think when they’ll grow up. I feel that writing my songs myself, the meaning of words is so important. Good is Good for example, is about doing well in the world, trying to reach everyone in the world even if that’s impossible. So the meaning of those songs is really important to me, and that’s something I offer to the world.

Anyway, here in the UK it’s a very different context. That’s why I always introduce my songs when on stage. The live shows are really important to me because what you can’t get from the album, you’ll understand live. At the same time, because Vula Viel’s music is mostly instrumental, when you, as an audience member, feel something and begin to dance that can be your own meaning for the song. It doesn’t have to be my words. The depth of this music is that it can communicate with people, and they can take their own meaning from that. I constantly feel that on stage when I play.

While the actual meaning of our songs is completely different. For example, during Degaari funeral ceremonies, the words are never sung, but everybody knows them. It’s almost like you don’t even have to play the tune, you just have to remind people of them because everyone knows them. They don’t have any other music; there are only two harmonies and that means that everyone knows the songs. It’s almost like if all our music was written with the same chord progression. So, there’s a real ownership of the words and their meanings there.

While here, of course, is a different context. Here, I’d explain the meaning a little bit, but I don’t think about the original meaning of the song when I play: it’s a totally different background. So, when I play it I give it my own meaning and the audience can have their own too. It’s also about how and what I feel at that particular moment. It’s going to be the same with the songs that I’m writing for the next album. I reflect my personal feelings and the words have a precise meaning for me. For example, I’ve written something for my dad who recently passed away and I feel like he’s my new bandmate. I feel that he’s in the room when I’m writing and helping me to attract the right people. So, my new songs have quite specific meanings for me, which the old ones didn’t and I’m wondering if they can translate to the audience. I think I’ll discover that pretty soon after a few gigs”.

This is going to happen on Saturday, when Vula Viel will play at Total Refreshment Centre in Hackney. To till the soil for the show, we closed the chat asking Bex to describe in a few words; her band and their music.

I’d say something annoying like ‘if you really want to know, come and see us play”. But no, I won’t do that…actually, there was a review, I think in the Financial Times some time ago, where they wrote ‘Ghanaian minimalism’. I really like that, because they are the two main influences in my music. Next to those, there’s also something new I guess. I learnt a lot from playing jazz music and I brought that into my music too. So yes, let’s say that it’s Ghanaian minimalism with something new attached”.