|Bex Burch at Cafe Oto, London, 2019
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska
Percussionist BEX BURCH leads ‘Ghanaian minimalist’ band Vula Viel. She talked to Alison Bentley about studying music in Ghana; working with bassist Ruth Goller and percussionist Jim Hart on Vula Viel’s new album; being a female bandleader, and their upcoming tour.
London Jazz News: How did you start playing percussion?
Bex Burch: There was a children’s choir that my dad set up at our church, and even then I didn’t want to sing. I was three and I wanted to hit things! So I was given a pair of claves. I didn’t really know what a percussionist was. At 12, I lived in North Yorkshire and we used to go to Swaledale to a family friend’s house. There was a dry stone waller called John, repairing the walls. He had a djembe, and was teaching me rhythms. It’s a powerful, joyful memory for me. I went to school and said, “I want to learn the djembe.” I’m 34 now, but in those days no-one knew what a djembe was. I went to Secondary School in Coventry; there was a percussion teacher, Sheila Russell, and I learned snare drum, xylophone and timpani – classical percussion. I got to hit things, and to craft it.
LJN: Were there many other women percussionists at the Guildhall School of Music?
BB: When I joined there were three female percussionists older than me in the years above. They invited me to join them and we formed an all-female percussion quartet. There was always at least one in each year. It was a really wonderful department, and having so many women there was a massive part of that.
LJN: What got you involved in Ghanaian music?
BB: I’d say African music has influenced the groove-based music that I grew up with – Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin. As a percussionist, lots of the music that I play is groove-based. At music college, aged 18, I quickly found out that the influences on all the composers that I really enjoyed were African. I played a lot of Steve Reich’s early stuff, which was heavily based on Ghanaian and Ewe riffs. It’s in Clapping Music, Drumming and …18 Musicians, for example. A really good friend of mine from when I first moved to London is Ghanaian, and he invited me to go. That made sense: why would I assume that Steve Reich had everything to tell me about this country? Why not go there and actually experience it myself? I was 19 when I first went, and I made several trips over about five years before moving there. In those early trips I met [teacher] Thomas Segkura, and I met the gyil [Dagaare xylophone]. There was something about that instrument and the music of the Dagaare people. The experience was so powerful that I felt like I wanted to go back and just be there for a couple of years. Thomas Segkura invited me to be his apprentice, and I finished my degree at the Guildhall – things just fall into place sometimes – I won a scholarship to go to study abroad for two years so it was perfect.
LJN: Are there many women amongst the Dagaare people who play the gyil? Were you unusual?
BB: I was a live-in outsider, and over time a lot of my preconceptions changed. One of them was about women playing music. I think people have gone to Ghana and written that women don’t play in Dagaare bands. I’m not completely sure how that happened. Being there for such a long time I got to play music with women. My apprenticeship was with Thomas and making xylophones was with him, but a lot of my learning from that apprenticeship was from the women. Music was such a big part of our day to day chores – washing up and cooking was rhythmical! I built my own house with the help of my friends – a local-style building. Women and men have really distinct roles in building and household jobs; one of the women’s ones is patting down a mixture of mud, ash and water on the roof. It still is one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had, and I only had that because I’m a woman. This rhythmical patting of the roof was just incredible. People were just doing their work, just trying to get a job done.
Certainly, women play the xylophone less than the men, but when the men leave, women play. Things are changing. I went back last year to a different house and there were more and more women in that compound joining in. Men have the money, and you need money to buy xylophone wood to make the xylophones. But women are as skilled as musicians as the men, and that was a really important thing for me to see as a female percussionist. These female drummers didn’t have to be more masculine to do that. I was struggling with that at the time: I knew I was a woman and a drummer. I didn’t know that they could be the same thing. These were strong women – they had muscles – but that was feminine.
LJN: Do you feel that your music has changed in your new second album (Do Not Be Afraid, 2019) since the first album (Good is Good, 2015)?
BB: The first album is what Thomas Segkura taught me – Dagaare tunes on Western instruments and the gyil, finding my own sound. The new album is the next small step. I started having space for what I wanted to write on this instrument, asking myself: “What is it about this Dagaare music that resonates with me, a Yorkshire woman, so much?” Do Not Be Afraid is the first answering of that question. The meaning and the melodies are different. A lot of it’s written on the same forms as Dagaare music – kind of like a 12 bar blues. I wanted to explore how tension and release worked with these Dagaare chord progressions, and how my own melodies worked on top of that. The village where I was [Guo] has a single and intact musical tradition – unlike Accra, which is an urban centre with lots of different music traditions influencing each other. That’s really different from anything my own upbringing gave me. Why did this music move me when I’m not a Dagaare? The answer to that is that it’s just incredible music. The new album is chasing that same feeling.
LJN: You’ve got bassist Ruth Goller and percussionist/ drummer Jim Hart on the new album?
BB: Ruth and Jim both bring an amazing amount to the music. When I listen to Do Not Be Afraid now, I can hear that this album is greater than what I brought to it, so Ruth, Jim and producer Matt Calvert all made this something else. That’s what a band is. Ruth’s playing and ideas really move me. I’m really looking forward to sharing the stage with her for a few of weeks. She’s an incredible musician.
LJN: You have a tour coming up. What’s it like being a female bandleader?
BB: I’ve only known being a female bandleader! I wake up every day and I do all I can to share the music. The business side – doing all the admin and talking to agents and the press, and all the random jobs I’ve had to learn to put my music out there. If it doesn’t work that’s okay, I’ve done all I can do and then it’s out of my hands.
It’s great that we can have conversations about sex and gender in the workplace. If there are difficulties, I can talk about them and choose who I work with. I think I’m really privileged to be in this generation – my mum didn’t have the opportunities that I have. What I hope is, that the generation after me looks back and says, “Oh yeah, Bex had it really hard as a female percussionist, and it’s so much better now.” Wouldn’t that be incredible?
2019 Live dates:
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 – Playlist, 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
Fri 26 July – WOMAD Festival
LINK: Vula Viel website