Bex Burch – April 2015

Bex Burch has an extraordinary story to tell which takes her from banging pots and pans in Yorkshire as a child, to the Guildhall in London to earn a 1st and to play percussion with the Philharmonia, and then to Ghana to learn about Dagaare music and how to make a gyil or xylophone. Now she leads a band called Vula Viel which is Dagaare for Good is Good. It is touring the UK over the coming weeks.

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Q What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a musician – and specifically a percussionist?

A I was given claves aged four as I wanted to hit things in the church choir…

But when I really consciously chose to make hitting things a priority, I was in North Yorkshire at a friend’s house. I had been going there for a few years with a gaggle of friends, climbing trees and making bivouacs. One half-term, a man called John was walking through (I think he used to repair the dry stone walls in the area) with a djembe drum on his back. He taught us a rhythm and let me have  a go on his drum. We ran back to the house totally buzzing and inspired and started playing on all the pots and pans, I remember loving the feeling of my hand slapping the pots and feeling great in my body when I played hand to hand.

I went back to school and to the music department and asked for djembe lessons please. Djembe wasn’t nearly so widespread back then, but the teacher showed me the way to percussion lessons, and I never looked back.

Despite learning orchestral percussion and going the classical route, I now love teaching djembe to seven-year-olds and I always teach them the rhythm I learnt from John. The hand to hand triplets!

Q You trained as a classical percussionist – do you think there are fewer barriers between classical and other types of music for a percussionist than there are with other instruments. Are percussionists less “genre specific”?

A I think all musicians are less “genre specific”, in fact  I think music  is less genre specific than we like to admit! At least for me it is. Music is either good or not. When an orchestra comes together and something lifts.. you feel it, just the same as at Dagaare funerals or now in the band.

Although the simple truth as a classical musician is that percussionists don’t have concerti or sonatas written for them by Bach, Ravel, Debussy…

However, the art and role as a student of percussion is just as committed without the masterpieces. I learnt the humility and exquisite power of simplicity – Beethoven’s timpani writing, or simply placing a triangle note within an orchestra. From this place, I found my musicianship. Which I then went on to explore with various ensembles and collaborations. Perhaps if I played the trumpet, I could have gone deeper into Bach, but as a percussionist, the deeper is yet to be composed so we are more inclined to search in other genres.

Q What first aroused your interest in African music? And how did you choose Ghana as a place to go and study?

A My first trip to Ghana came about from a dear friend and huge support, Bill Bannerman. Bill was and still is the orchestral porter at my music college, his job at the time included setting out chairs for rehearsals in the hall, and his office was by the percussion cupboard behind the hall.

We would go to him to sign out instruments and more and more in my first year, I would sit with Bill in his office, drinking tea and chatting! Bill is Ghanaian, from the Southern Ga tribe, and he said ‘Bex, you would love Ghana.’ and invited me to visit with him in the summer. This was my first trip, a summer holiday with Bill!

I met his family, ate snails and lizard, met a few musicians through the National Theatre in Accra, and generally found the experience very difficult. I was young, everything was different… and I mean everything. Food, heat, language, me. So there was a lot to deal with. But something got under my skin and I then self-funded a return trip for a year. Here I was able to be more present with what I found difficult, come to love those same things I found so hard, and discover the amazing things in the music!

Q What is it about Dagaare music that inspires you above music from other cultures and backgrounds?

A During that first year in Ghana, I travelled to 10 regions and music traditions, taking lessons and playing with musicians. I met Thomas Segkura, the Dagaare tribe and xylophone (or gyil). The land, the people, the instrument and Thomas all resonated with me and I felt I needed more time with this one instrument and teacher. This led to my Dagaare gyil-making apprenticeship with Thomas a few years later.

So to answer your question, something touched me before I understood what it was. And actually what ‘it’ is about Dagaare music that inspires me has infinite expressions. Yes I could explain the harmony system for sending spirits from this world to the ancestor world, or the asymmetrical bell pattern driving with chaos, or the amazing mastery of space and silence. But actually, it isn’t about Dagaare music inspiring me above anything else.

It was Dagaare music that touched my innate inspiration. The search for Good music was met for that time in a powerful place, music and teacher, and I chose to immerse myself in it. I did learn the language, the music, the customs, the necessity, the humility, the craftsmanship, the dangers, the good and the bad. But what inspired me is not this one culture above others; it is that, once accessed, I found that the powerful source of Good music making is actually within me. This keeps growing and changing as I play here in my home country.

Bex in Ghana with her teacher Thomas Sagkura (right) and the first gyil she made herself.

Bex in Ghana with her teacher Thomas Sagkura (right) and the first gyil she made herself.

Had you ever made an instrument before you learned how to make a Gyil? Does having made your instrument make it more rewarding to play? (Should every musician ideally make their own instrument?!!)

A I would highly recommend to every person, no matter musician, that they make a xylophone.

I had never made an instrument before. I had half always wanted to, and love making things and fixing things, but I was lazy and had yet to learn the real richness in work!

A great lesson from my teacher Thomas was ‘If there are things to be done, finish them first before you come to sit down’. This sounds so simple, but if you have an idea to do something, how often do you get up and do it right away?

Through making xylophones, I not only felt truly capable as a craftswoman, but I learnt patience and positive perfectionism. Every single detail I work on on my gyil, and every time I simply do the work, I honour the craft, I honour my playing, and yes I am rewarded! It’s like alchemy. I work hard with my hands, taking care of every single tiny piece even if no one else will ever see it. And I do some things over and over til they’re right. Put it together, and then!!! Alchemy! I have made music possible. It’s really better than lead to gold.

And of course as soon as I have finished the perfect gyil, I see its imperfections and inevitably at some point take it all apart and start again.

Q You have brought together some rather special players from the young London jazz scene – how did you choose them?

A I remember being on a train to Brighton in the dark rain, moody and tired, when I played a free scratch card from a newspaper and found I *had (small print, *could have) won £1million! I decided I’d go with the thought and later sat on the beach in the night imagining what I would actually change in my life with that money. The main thing being making a band and playing this music that was going on in my head. With my imaginary riches, I asked myself whom I would work with if I could work with anyone. And the answer simply put is these amazing people. Turns out I didn’t win any money, but the musicians all said yes. I was and still am blown away by each member of Vula Viel. George Crowley, Dave De Rose, Dan Nicholls and Simon Roth are all taking this band to new levels of beauty with their playing and creativity.

Q And what appeals to you most about their individual playing?

A Perhaps because of their accomplishments, or maybe it’s the other way round, each of these players has nothing to prove. When we’re playing this music, they trust not only me but themselves and each other. We all play a part and the sum of those parts is something magical.

Q What has been the response from UK audiences to the band? And does the audience transcend genre?

A UK audiences have been incredible. Each gig we’ve played someone has said ‘that was the best music I’ve heard in years’. I’m not saying that to sound conceited, but it’s because I agree, and I love how that feel communicates to audiences. People pay to come and hear music, which is great. But the openness to really hear what we’re trying to do, to meet us, to connect with us, all shows me that UK audiences are something very special. And yes, this transcends genre. Playing in one setting we are playing dance trance music, in another it is contemporary and to be enjoyed seated… But either way, the support and love is tangible at gigs, and feeds me, feeds the band, and feeds this amazing country. I meet incredible people everyday, and every gig.

Q Have you or are you intending to tour the band internationally? Has the band played in Ghana?

A I am intending to tour the band internationally! And at some point, Vula Viel will go to Ghana.

This explosion of where the music comes from and where I am taking it, is something so far only I have experienced. And I look forward to the day that Vula Viel sees a Dagaare funeral and recognises the music despite its otherness, and the Dagaare people see VV play their own music despite its otherness! I’ll be able to watch that explosion happen for everyone else!

Q What are your ambitions for the group and for your Gyil playing?

A My ambitions are to release an incredible album this year (which I’m hugely proud of!) and in doing so share this music with a much wider audience. By this I mean to reach audiences and promotors in Europe with a view to a European tour next year, and worldwide in the years to follow.

We are starting to gig new material and writing this is a completely different process to the last album which existed before the members did. I wrote a tune last month in the same house in North Yorkshire where John showed me triplets on the djembe. This time I was alone, no one to hear me and feeling as true to myself as I have ever felt. I’m now writing for a real band which is no longer imaginary or reliant on me teaching them. I’m learning more about arranging and composing in order to meet their requirements, and their requirements are continuously growing as I meet them. It’s a self perpetuating cycle of creation and sharing.

Vula Viel has grown way beyond what I could imagine, and as I learn more, there is limitless potential for it’s growth.

Q The Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe composed music for his friend, didgeridoo player William Barton. Have you considered writing a “classical” piece for Gyil and orchestra? Or persuading a composer to do so?

A Peter Sculthorpe’s Requiem and other percussion concerti are part of the reason percussion is changing so much for the better. Even in the eight years since I left college, requirements have changed. For example the new Guildhall syllabus now includes a doubling requirement on gyil!

Writing for gyil, both in and out of VV, and commissioning works for the gyil, all of this is hugely important to give other people access! And yes, commissions and compositions are all in the pipeline for me.

Vula Viel was a name given to me meaning Good is Good. I shared this name with the band and it certainly lives up to it. So often in life I find myself and others around me choosing things that are bad for us – the wrong partner, or not being able to cope with being with the right partner, is just one example. But in this band, I have an example of what happens when I can bear to make something good. Each note, member, audience, patron, and gig, showers me with the richness of life. And it’s a constant reminder for the rest of my life that:

Good is good!!!

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  • Lula Viel will be touring the country from next week. The dates are:

15 April The Lescar, 303 Sharrow Vale Road, Hunter’s Bar, Sheffield.

18 April The Lighthouse, 50 The Strand, Walmer, Deal.

21 April The Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, Birmingham.

29 April The Bell, 103 Walcot Street, Bath.

6 May The Canteen, Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft, Bristol.

7 May The Blue Boar, 29 Market Close, Poole.

23 May Jaminaround, The Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne.

11 June The Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London.

  • For more about Bex Burch and Vula Viel go to Bex’s website here.

Categories: Interview

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3 replies

  1. What an inspirational article. Proud Parent!


  1. Good will be really good at the mac on Thursday – thejazzbreakfast

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