Bex Burch’s trio Vula Viel, with Jim Hart on drums and Ruth Goller on bass are shortly setting off on tour, starting in Brighton on 14 October, with subsequent gigs in Poole, at London’s Café Oto (on Saturday 16 October) ,and Birmingham. Feature by Martin Chilton
The entrancing track “Bird of Kumasi”, which features on Vula Viel’s 2020 album What’s Not Enough About That?, captures the appeal both of band leader Bex Burch’s transcendent music and of her own personal musical journey. The tune was inspired by a time when she was a guest of Ghanaian guitarist Koo Nimo. “The city of Kumasi is in the tropics, surrounded by forest and greenery,” she says. “I was staying at Koo’s house and this bird was basically all I was absorbing in my ears, the simple, rhythmic tune which was like something out of an Ashanti melody. Even the birds in Ghana groove amazingly! Years later, I again find myself listening and absorbing bird song. Wood pigeon, nightingales and black birds all influence my current writing in a number of abstract ways: nature is in my breathing and cadence.”
She was born in Leeds as Rebecca Burch (“there is a time in every Rebecca’s life when they chose a shorter name and I picked Bex,” she jokes) and her father Chris, a vicar who also worked while she was growing up at Coventry Cathedral, enjoyed the church music that was part of his work. “I was allowed to play claves in the choir. I think I was always more interested in hitting things and both my parents believed that music was something to be enthusiastic about,” Burch recalls.
The biggest influence on her early career was Dagaare xylophonist Thomas Sekgura, to whom she was apprenticed in her early twenties – after she graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama – when she was living in the north Ghana village of Guo. As well as teaching her traditional Dagaare forms, Segura also instructed her in how to build a gyil, the type of wooden xylophone he used.
Our interview is done on Zoom and Burch turns her laptop camera round to show me the latest gyil she has built. “I really love making instruments. I’m still tweaking my latest one, and it’s like no other Gyil in existence” she explains. “They are always a work in progress.” She also shows me the vibraphone which she also plays and tells me that among the new sounds she has been listening to lately, via Orphy Robinson’s recommendation is the music of Blue Note Records vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, whom she describes as “a whole force of nature”.
Orphy is one of many influences on her later career, indeed since moving back to UK in 2011, Burch’s writing and improvising underwent a “masters in the school of London jazz+ scene”. Burch sites important gigs and sharing the stage with various musicians as creatively important moments, not least her Vula Viel bandmates, Ruth Goller and Jim Hart. Notable playing in Peter Zummo’s band for a short tour of his ‘64000 Litmus Test’ project in 2019 with bandmates Tom Skinner, Tom Herbert and Robert Stillman as a time of awakening. “I thought I was open, but experiencing Peter on stage inspired and challenged me to be that open”.
Now, at 37, playing as a trio with bass player Ruth Goller and drummer Jim Hart, Burch believes she is getting closer to her musical vision and stepping into “what my actual voice is”.
Although the pandemic has meant the three musicians have not played together for nearly 18 months, Burch used lockdown (when thankfully she was able to get some financial assistance from the government), to take a profound look at her life and music. She is sure she will reap the benefits. “It was a unique situation for me and my instrument to be in the same place for 18 months. I have had so much more time to really listen to my instrument and learn how to record it. I also questioned a lot of things: why I am playing the gyil, percussion or music and honestly prepared to throw everything out. In fact, when I sat and asked myself “what music do I like today”, I found my love of percussion and the gyil and powerful fundamentals from Dagaare and various influences are still there.”
Added to that, she realised that creating sounds with two fine musicians who are also close friends offers a remarkable creative opportunity. “Jim and Ruth are like no other for me. The music I can make with these two particular humans, these two incredible musicians, is unique and comes from a beautiful intention of discovery and friendship. I’m so excited to sit with Vula Viel, and invite my bandmates to ask ourselves ‘what music do we like today?’ and to see what happens.”
The three plan initially to prepare for an upcoming UK tour by going on a retreat and rehearsing and writing.
The tour will include music from their acclaimed record What’s Not Enough About That? (which features trombonist Peter Zummo, and was produced by Dilip Harris) along with showcasing new material Burch, Goller and Hart plan to collaborate on together. “We’re at the discovery stage at the moment,” Burch says, “and I am incredibly excited to see what we begin to create. They are so different from me, and the sum of the three of us is hard to imagine. My intention is that the music comes from an amazing place and is open and honest. One gift about the past tough year has been getting clear what is important to me as a musician.”
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LINKS: Bex Burch’s website
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)