Bex Burch Interview

Percussionist Bex Burch specialises in performing on the gyil, the Ghanaian xylophone, in her band Vula Viel, along with bassist Ruth Goller and drummer Jim Hart. Her interest in percussion started from a young age. “I was always interested in percussion. I just enjoyed hitting things, for want of a better expression. As a child it was just a joyful thing, whenever I had the opportunity. For example, playing claves in a church choir when I was very, very young, maybe 3 or 4. Or playing a Senegalese djembe drum, which came into my life through a dry-stone wall repairman in North Yorkshire when I was on holiday there. I’m really grateful that I wasn’t doing lessons from an early age, just because of who I am and the fact that when I chose to take it seriously, it was my decision rather than something that was put on me.”

“From that childish joy I started at a secondary school in Coventry where there was a percussion teacher and I said ‘I want to learn the djembe’, going back to this drum that I’d played in North Yorkshire, and they said ‘well, we don’t know what that is, but you can learn percussion’. There was a fantastic teacher there called Sheila Russell. I was really hungry for it and she just gave me as much of her knowledge as I could learn. She encouraged me to apply for conservatoires, it was a really nice training that I got, even before going to conservatoire. Because I was with this teacher and in all sorts of bands, such as brass bands, orchestras and wind bands, I had loads of experience just playing with people. Percussion is found in just about everything, apart from string quartet. So there was just a great need, and I got loads of playing done in my teenage years which, looking back, I think is amazing, in terms of the number of opportunities that I had.”

Burch later studied at the Guildhall School in London. “I felt that I’d had a lot of experience there just playing with people, rather than just practicing on my own in a room. That’s continued to be important to me. As much as I value my time, writing and practicing in my solitude, the expression of music and the sharing of it is a group activity. Even as a solo artist, it’s about communicating with an audience, serving yourself and the people around you with what you’re playing. Percussion especially lends itself to ensemble playing as opposed to solo. I got a lot more from playing all the time, and the resources and opportunities to put on decent music. For myself, discovering Steve Reich, and putting on Eighteen Musicians and Sextet at Guildhall, you can’t do that in everyday life if you don’t have access to pianos in that number. Again, it was really wonderful and joyful, hitting things.”

On the subject of composer Steve Reich, his percussion-based music from the 1970s was based on a Ghanaian bell pattern and that intrigued Burch. “When I heard Reich’s music, I thought to myself ‘I really love this; it’s really speaking to me’. But why would I assume that Steve Reich can tell me everything I want to know about this music? So I decided to go there. I had a friend who was Ghanaian, he said I would love it, so I went for 5 weeks. It was just a whole other world. I got a sense that there was a lot more so I ended up going back there.”

Eventually Burch moved to Ghana where she met Thomas Segura, who was her teacher on the gyil. “He invited me to be his apprentice, which fell in to place with what I wanted to do and I really wanted to be there for a longer time to fully experience the music, rather than just dipping in and out. It was an amazing run of lucky chance encounters and opportunities that were a powerful, immersive 3 years.”

After Burch had finished her apprenticeship she was given the name Vula Viel, which means ‘good is good’. “I came back to England and we moved to Brighton for a couple of years, busking on the seafront, and working in a yoga studio. It was a waiting period for me when I was getting hungry to play this music in my own country, and figure out what it was about a culture that was not mine.”

“I’m looking forward to coming down to Brighton as part of the tour and going in the sea. I don’t have very many hobbies because I’m a complete workaholic but swimming makes me feel really grounded. It really helps my shoulders and my arms to be able to play music, so that kind of exercise is really good for me.”

After two years in Brighton, Burch moved back to London and started the band Vula Viel in January 2013. “When I first started Vula Viel it was with people that I’d known from Guildhall, people that I’d known since we were teenagers. I called up Dave Smith and Tom Challenger originally, and also from that time, Matt Calvert who has produced the last few albums. Through Dave and Tom we got in Dan Nicholls who I hadn’t met before but he was also interested in West African music. So we started with the four of us, then through various changes we’ve gone on to include Dave De Rose, Simon Roth, George Crowley and Dan Nicholls. Jim Hart was on vibes for the first album and now we’ve got him on drums, myself on gyil and Ruth Goller on bass. I got to know Dan, George, Dave, Simon and Ruth on the scene, playing in London.”

After releasing their debut album Good Is Good in 2015, Vula Viel released their next album in January 2019, Do Not Be Afraid with an album launch at London’s Cafe Oto. When asked to choose a favourite track from the new album, Burch is adamant, “No track gets on one of my albums without it, at some point, being my favourite. That’s my rule. So each of them has been my favourite at different times. At the moment, it’s really hard to choose. Either We Are or Do Not Be Afraid are my favourites at the moment but it goes through each one of them at different times.”

“We recorded the album with all three of us playing together. The production was by Matt Calvert who has a really distinctive way of producing, like his drum sound, which I can hear on the other projects that he’s worked on. He was in the studio with us as well and definitely put his own stamp on it.”

“Making the album, we were gigging to develop the stuff beforehand but when the recording’s made it then feeds back into the live show. It’s really interesting the whole process of making an album and doing the live shows. I think for a while after making it we were more influenced by the album, but now that it’s been a few months since we recorded it, our live show is changing and opening up a bit from the album. The live show is expanding a little bit further from the record. There’s a whole kind of wave in the journey of how the live show and the recorded medium influence each other, then one starts to be different from another. It’s really interesting to me. I’m really excited about the live show at the moment. We can do more that surprises each other whilst the trust that accords the music is still attended to.”

Along with material from the album, the live show will also incorporate some newly composed pieces. “Since recording the new album I’ve been writing and we’ve been rehearsing and developing new material. This is the first album where I’ve written all my own material, because the first album was all music that Thomas Segura had taught me. I needed to put that out to make space in my head for Do Not Be Afraid.”

“With Do Not Be Afraid there was definitely more to do compositionally, so I’m writing a lot at the moment and the band were developing a lot of new material. The live show will be focussed on Do Not Be Afraid because we’re just really excited to be able to tour that and at the same time it makes sense taking it into new material as well. That’s going to be feeding in to the next album and all of these lines of communication are really important with music. I don’t think one person ever makes music from nothing. They’re all influenced by everything around them. And the live influences the record and vice versa. I feel that I’m getting better and quicker as a composer and I enjoy communicating my ideas to audiences and am ready to flex those muscles and see how it goes in real life.”

Vula Viel’s album Do Not Be Afraid is out now.

 

Vula Viel

Rose Hill Tavern, Brighton

Saturday 6th April, 2019

 

Bex Burch of Vula Viel was interviewed by Charlie Anderson.