Her band’s sound has African roots, jazz links and is contantly shape-shifting. Bex Burch tells John Fordham about the past, present and future of Vula Viel’s ‘messy minimalism’:
For those convinced that jazz is a spirit and not a set of styles, the bell-like melodiousness, vivaciously springy grooves, and conversational relaxation of the seven-year-old UK ensemble Vula Viel is a bewitchingly fresh and heartwarming sound. They don’t play bebop tunes or swing, but jazz has been a conspicuous influence on this adventurous outfit’s original formation and early lineups – and though the current trio version quote jazz only tangentially, the music’s spirit is unmistakeable in the group’s rhythm-driven vitality and spontaneous vibe. After a crowded year that took them from small jazz and new-music haunts like the Vortex and Cafe OTO, to WOMAD, and to European festivals including Moers and Willisau, Vula Viel release their third album this month, and tour the repertoire of the engagingly-named What’s Not Enough About That? from early March through to November’s EFG London Jazz Festival. The classically-trained, African-apprenticed percussionist and founder Bex Burch has seen her unique group pass through a mercurially fastmoving evolution, but if pressed to find a common thread, she likes to call it ‘messy minimalism’.
Vula Viel – the name means ‘good is good’ in upper-west Ghana’s Dagaare language, and happens to be Burch’s Dagaare-given name as well as the band’s – currently joins the chiming sound of her Ghanaian gyil xylophone to the punky thunder of Melt Yourself Down bass guitarist Ruth Goller, and the polyrhythmic creativity of award-winning drummer/vibraphonist Jim Hart. Burch reshaped the group from its jazzier origins as a quintet (saxophonists Tom Challenger and George Crowley, and keyboardist/composer Dan Nicholls are former members) to make the ensemble message more direct, and to galvanise her own composing. Given the group’s dynamic creative history, however, and Bex Burch’s remarkable journey toward launching it, Vula Viel’s present identity is unlikely ever to stay still. As she observes, “the live show is already ahead of the album now.”
Bex Burch knew she wanted to make music ‘by hitting things’ from her early childhood, but she puts most of her gamechanging choices down to serendipity rather than intention. “If you ask me what brought me here from my early life, first of all I’d have to say I don’t know. As a child I wasn’t aware I wanted to be a musician, I didn’t really know that being a musician was a thing. I remember always playing as a child, but not specifically music. My dad was a vicar, so I heard music in church. Then I remember not wanting to sing in the choir, but wanting to play claves. I’m really grateful for that childhood, it allowed me to think music was fun and creative and play.”
Burch grew up in Leeds and moved to Coventry, and by her teens had discovered she wanted to play the djembe, the West African hand drum. Her school recommended a local percussion teacher called Sheila Russell, where Burch’s journey into music truly began. “Sheila was amazing,” Burch says. “It was a very serendipitous event, and I know now how valuable it was. I started lessons with her at 15, ate everything up she could give me, did Grade 8, and played in all kinds of groups – from percussion ensembles, to a punk band called Pornographic Sheep.”
Burch enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and there had more solo experience – she had already played in a very diverse assortment of bands. “It blew my mind to move to the Guildhall,” she recalls, “and I made some of the most important friendships in my musical life there. I used to liken it to Hogwarts – everything felt like magic, no one department knew all the things I was doing, I was just running around having a ball with all kinds of different players and finding things out I’d never known.”
Burch fell under the spell of the American minimalist composer Steve Reich then – but also discovered that much of his work from the 1970s on, particularly the epic multi-percussion piece Drumming had been influenced by percussion traditions from Ghana. In her first Guildhall year, the 19-year-old Burch travelled to Ghana for a month – and though the climate and the culture shock were daunting at first, the experience got under her skin to the extent that she took a year out from college, raised funds for a much longer trip, and gave herself time to fall in love with the country, its people, and its music. Most crucially of all, she fell in love with the sound of the gyil, the ceremonial xylophone of the Dagaaba people, made from lliga wood, with gourd resonators beneath the keys.
“I spent three years in Ghana altogether, living and farming with a xylophone family, taking part in harvests, learning to cook, and making a home,” Burch says. “That experience feels now like the continuation of a long thread that had begun in my childhood – when I had a sense that I was going to find my instrument one day. In Ghana I found it was the gyil. On my first trip in 2003 I’d met a man in Accra called Thomas Segkura, a maker and amazing player of the gyil, who sadly passed on in 2010. He’s maybe the only genius musician I’ve ever met – he had a way of voicing his left hand especially to make an extraordinary context for tuneful melody. When I moved there, I went to the upper west where he’s from, and he invited me to be his apprentice in making instruments, not playing. It was a lesson in many things, particularly what comes down from the elders. They just know stuff that we don’t know, and that’s always going to be true.”
Bex Burch learned some things about gyil-building the hard way – not least the venomous power of the sap in lliga wood, which poisoned blisters she incurred in the early days of her apprenticeship, and consigned her to hospital only just in time to save her right hand. Over time, she came to find tough physical work, carving wood or tending the land, an empowering release rather than a burden, and relished a sense that she was truly growing up. But it was a life-change that made returning to Britain confusingly difficult at the end of Burch’s time in Ghana, and after relocating to Brighton she spent most of two years busking traditional Dagaare music on the streets, unsure of what the next move could be.
“Toward the end of that time,” Burch says, “I finally began to feel there was something I wanted to do. I started the band then, moved back to London, and I think began taking myself seriously as a musician, and as a human. I wanted to make the band with the best musicians I knew, and they were people I’d known from Guildhall in 2002-7 – Tom Challenger, the drummer Dave Smith, Matt Calvert who was a multi-instrumentalist and eventually producer. They were in the year above me on the jazz course, and I’m certain they were all much more important to me than I was to them. Even at 19 or 20 as they were then, they brought something to the Guildhall that was especially theirs, and really stayed with me a decade later when I was forming the band.”
In 2015, Vula Viel broke cover, with a world-musical fusion of garrulous percussion grooves rooted in Dagaaba funeral rituals and Steve Reichian patterns, rugged bass-synth effects, and jazz-sax sounds of an Albert Ayleresque poignancy. It was soulful yet danceable music, and it didn’t sound like anybody else’s. Though the Vula Viel perspective has shifted since, Bex Burch still recalls those early jazz connections with awe.
“It was the jazz community that really welcomed me and the music I wanted to make into the world,” Burch says. “And still today, I’m playing with people who all have their own voices, and though I didn’t have the lineage and traditions of that jazz background, playing with them is helping me to understand my own voice. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without everyone I’ve played with over the last few years. I’ve learned so much about listening. Improvising is all about listening for me, seeing how open I can be to what I need to play in certain moments, and what I need not to play.”
Bex Burch faced a hard choice in restructuring the group with just Ruth Goller and Jim Hart as a trio better suited to the compositions emerging in her imagination, but she sees it not as an end point but part of a process that her life in Ghana helped her make sense of.
“Vula Viel means ‘good is good’, and when the tribe gave me that name when the apprenticeship with Thomas ended, I learned that you own your own name for five years, and after that it owns you and guides you,” Burch explains. “Perhaps that was what was happening when I came to feel I wanted more space in the music, not such a dense sound, the freedom to fill space sometimes but be really sparse at others. I knew it as soon as I finished our last album, Do Not Be Afraid – I thought ‘that’s it, I’m done’. It’s like making a xylophone, as soon as it’s finished, you see how you could improve the next time.”
Burch has taken that impulse into many relationships outside of Vula Viel in recent times – performing with mavericks of contemporary music from the American minimalist trombonist/singer Peter Zummo, to percussion star Evelyn Glennie, multi-instrumentalist Magnus Mehta, live-electronics dance drummer Beanie Bhebhe, and Brazilian percussionist/producer Marià Portugal. She feels now that all this new experience, coupled with the rich input that Goller and Hart bring from their own musical lives, will make the Vula Viel trio ‘increasingly open’ in the coming year. But in the end, she seems to feel that there’s a simple core to the band’s music, however diverse its references become – and that the album title What’s Not Enough About That? reflects it.
“I wrote that song because of a question a close friend of mine had asked,” Burch says. “It was ‘are you alive, are you loved – what’s not enough about that?’. Of course, it’s about living your life in the broadest sense. But maybe it’s also about a mindset that I learned from the London jazz world. You’re playing, and you’re listening. And that has to be enough.” (pp)
Vula Viel’s What’s Not Enough About That? is released on 7 February 2020. Their tour begins at Cafe OTO (with special guest Peter Zummo) on 12 March, and runs until November.