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Bex Burch

Bex Burch started drumming aged three (in the church choir) and then at seven a chance encounter with a Djembe player inspired her to study percussion. Attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she played in classical groups was introduced to Steve Reich’s riff-based minimalism. Intrigued by the Ghanaian influence on Reich’s music, another chance encounter, with Guildhall orchestral porter, Bill Bannerman, who led to a new friendship and an invitation to visit his family in Ghana’s capital Accra. Inspired by the music and culture she took a gap year, travelling to each of the ten regions studying their music traditions. There she first met Thomas Segkura master xylophonist and the Gyil, the master xylophone of the Dagaare tribe. Segkura invited Burch to be his apprentice: a traditional role in gyilli culture of instrument making rather than playing, as playing is not taught, but just happens. She lived in Ghana for three years, completed her apprenticeship, bought land, built a house, worked as a xylophone maker (making her own instrument) and farmed land for food. She picked up some Dagaare, and absorbed the gyil music itself, eventually playing at funerals – the main arena for the gyil music making. On passing out of the apprenticeship, she was given the name Vula Viel, meaning Good is Good along with the advice: “All we have given you is yours, and all you have given us is ours. The good you do remains when you die.†Following Segkura’s sad passing in 2010, Burch transitioned from apprentice to a teacher herself. Eventually moving back to her home country, she formed Vula Viel. Rehearsing for 18 months before their first gig, the members brought a focus and respect of Burch’s vision to the music and a shared humility to expressing the Dagaare harmony. Burch wanted to share the power of the rhythms and harmonies she had been effected by in Dagaare, Ghana. And through their own efforts the band members now have an ownership of this music which has transpired culture. This music has travelled through centuries of Dagaare tradition, according to tradition first given to the people by fairies, the beings of the spirit world. Each gyilli player hears a music which moves them at a funeral, goes home and works out the song, maybe adds different bass notes, makes it their own. It is this mixture of tradition and openness that makes the music of Vula Viel so vital, as Burch mixes her traditional Dagaare training, the diverse influences of living in and making music in London and all her influences as a “Yorkshire woman Dagaare Gyil†player to create something new and vital something that celebrates Dagaare culture while also re-inventing it as Burch and the band make the music their own. Indeed in the hands of Vula Viel, Good is very Good indeed! Bex Burch on learning to play the Gyil When I first arrived in Guo, the village in Dagaare Ghana I called home for three years, I couldn’t speak the language, I couldn’t play the music, make the gyilli, I couldn’t even carry water or cook. I was treated accordingly – like a baby. And like a baby, I absorbed.. In the language, it was usually just the odd English word I’d understand, but I remember the day very clearly when my ears pricked and the word was ‘friend’ in Dagaare. I sat under a mango tree in a nearby household with the “old lady†when I was resting from the physically hard work. I asked her in simple Dagaare ‘ What was your name before’. She shrugged. I thought I had the tenses wrong. ‘What was your name before you were Old Lady?’ She laughed a beautiful toothless laugh, ‘I don’t remember!!!’ The Old Lady and her younger sister were cousins of my teacher, Thomas Sekgura. And Bamaali, the younger sister, lived with me and taught me much about womanhood, motherhood, generosity, work, beauty… and more. My job was to do as Thomas or any elders told me. I worked hard, Thomas was a generous teacher and enjoyed resting, so I got to learn quickly by doing all the making work. The first pair (a funeral needs a pair) of xylophones I made were done before we’d even finished the house or farm. And I was told as a maker (central to the spirituality and not a role to be taken lightly) that I would go through an initiation. I didn’t know what they meant, but my hand became infected by the poison of the sacred lliga wood, I didn’t sleep for four days and became very ill. I was taken to the nearest town having failed to respond to village care, and in a hospital remember a nurse injecting me and saying ‘I’m just going to give you ketemin to send you to slee…’ I woke up wailing ‘Gyilli beat me gyilli beat me’ and with a big hole in my hand, but a huge amount of respect and humility to the Gyil. I knew Gyilli were the boss, I was simply bringing the gyil into being, but the instrument could allow me or stop me. This was my initiation. There were more initiations too, with the music, the difficulty of the rhythms and understanding without the western understanding of learning. I was frustrated, I was getting stronger, better at Dagaare, better at carrying water, and all the other jobs, but I was still getting kicked off the gyil for mistakes. And the funerals and rhythms and deadly serious, so I didn’t want to be allowed to play if it was wrong, but I desperately wanted to play it right. The first funeral I played without being kicked off was exhilarating, and painful, and amazing all at once. I played and played, going through the mental games of past frustration, physical tiredness, battling my own head to keep going and not mess up. This ‘fire’ of playing has stayed with me, and I was amazed to then witness versions of it when I taught the London musicians this powerful music when we formed Vula Viel. Those years of living, being, making, sitting, the heat of the day and the peace of the night stay with me. Those first two xylophones I made were for my household, I later built a house too which Bamaali still calls home. I remember the first night after we finished the gyilli, I was so tired I just wanted to sleep, and rest my recently operated on hand. There was no electricity so the sound of the gyilli making had travelled far across the flat land. I heard and saw crowds of people, young and old coming from all directions. These people all came to play, to dance, to sing! I was partly annoyed that they were all messing up my home and keeping me up, but also awe struck!!!! I had enabled this! This was muuuuuuusic!!!! We played and danced all night in the full moon. Dancing round and round the xylophones, the gyil that had beat me, the community who witnessed my pain. And after that first night, every night was full of music. Not always with crowds of people, sometimes just Thomas was there, I’d play till my hands couldn’t lift anymore, then I’d lie on my back watching the incredible stars and listen. I felt the notes entering my ears, I felt myself absorbing, ever so slowly, but really absorbing this music. About the songs on Good is Good. Yes Yaa Yaa (I Beg), Based on Yaa Yaa Kolo, of which my main memory is of playing under the full moon with what felt like hundreds of the Guo community came to play our newly finished gyilli. Yaa Yaa Kolo was played round and round as the dancers danced round and round the xylophones in a frenzy or dust and feet. Takyen Korakora (Don’t Go There) draws on Dagaare funeral music, a powerful harmony itself helps the dead transition to the ancestor world. Lobi (Neighbour tribe) Thomas Segkura, was proud to be the only one in Guo who knew neighbouring tribe’s Lobi music. And just as he worked out the songs at home and changed parts to make them his own, Vula Viel have introduced a high-life bell pattern, two bass drums and bass synths laying it down! Gandayina (the breadwinner has died). Lobi and Dagaare funerals are all about chaos, truth, crying, wailing, facing up to our shadow, falling, going down til one reached the bottom. The songs are played to bring harsh truths to the mourners, “You didn’t look after your husband, now the main breadwinner has died and you will sufferâ€. Your only response is to dance, wail, be seen for all your failings. At which point, hungover and tired, you realise you are laughing, rebuilding, and have survived. Zine Dondone Zine Daa (You’re Sitting With An Enemy, You’re Sitting With A Drink) This tune came about when i was playing a solo at an early Vula Viel gig in Hoxton. We were up on a balcony looking down at everyone in a beautiful brick railway arch with bare stone floors. I started on this tune and Dave De Rose caught the bell pattern, George Crowley caught the octave riff and something took off! I started jumping and jumping and the crowd started dancing round and round; magical. Bewa (Let Them Come) Bewa is the Dagaare dance music, and comes in a few forms, a few dances. The meaning of Bewa is Let them come! By playing Bewa in Guo, we’d call people to come and dance and sing. Bekone (The Chief’s Family, They Fight Among Themselves) An insult to the chief’s family and how they neglect the people by fighting among themselves. At the funeral I heard this, Men and women wailed and shouted, one woman in particular danced in spirals, desperate. She ripped her clothes and became naked. At first I felt embarrassed for her, that she could be seen by everyone, but as I looked at the chief, standing and watching the wretched woman, I was struck by how this powerful, rich, controlled man could never express himself in such a raw, vulnerable and beautiful way.


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