Bex Burch first played in public aged three in the church where her dad, the vicar, was leading a children’s choir practice. ‘I was having none of the singing lark, so I picked up the claves and started hitting those together… I didn’t start lessons until much later.’ Inspired by a fantastic teacher at secondary school, she played percussion across the music spectrum – from punk band, Pornographic Sheep, to the local brass band. ‘I just had a lot of fun hitting things and had to get better at reading music in order to do it. I loved it and it drove me. I didn’t have to think about getting better, the more I played, the better I got.’
Then when Burch was 17 and preparing for auditions for music schools, she attended an Evelyn Glennie concert in Coventry, the first solo percussion concert she’d seen. Although she rates Glennie as the best solo percussionist alive (‘just incredible’), what really hit home was the solo cellist on the bill and the intimate relationship they had with their one instrument. ‘I thought that was what I wanted… I didn’t know which instrument it would be with, but somehow, even though a percussionist is a kind of jack of all trades, I thought that out there somewhere was my special instrument.’
‘ Even though a percussionist is a kind of jack of all trades, I thought that out there somewhere was my special instrument.’
While at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the idea of Ghana started to bubble to the top of her agenda – partly because of the percussion music of Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming) with its massive influence of Ewe music from south-eastern Ghana – but particularly on the recommendation of Guildhall’s music stage manager, Ghanaian Bill Bannerman. She made her first visit to Accra with other percussion students in 2003. ‘But I was really limited by my own immaturity… first time abroad and stunned by culture shock. I didn’t have the headspace to truly appreciate and explore the music. So a year later I took a year out to visit Ghana and get over myself and really learn and play some music.’
She obtained funding to travel to each of the country’s ten regions studying their music traditions and ‘went from separate to connected in terms of language/food/heat/shouting etc and I just loved it. I went to Nandom, the biggest town of the Dagaare people in Ghana’s Upper West region. And there I met the gyil [wooden xylophone] – this powerful instrument and its music that I didn’t understand.’ She had already experienced the Ewe and the Ashanti traditions, where there are ten to 30 drummers. But now she could see just three musicians, two gyilli and a tom tom player, and the massive xylophone player seemed to her to be doing the work of 15 percussionists from the other traditions. ‘I thought, ‘what is going on? How are they doing that?’ I just wanted to find out and learn to do it myself.’
During that first stay with the Dagaare, she studied with a teacher who didn’t speak any English. ‘When you take away words, you take away distractions like the opinions of others, so there was just me and the gyil and my perception of the instrument; it can be quite spacy and spiritual. The gyil was the person I was communicating with rather than another human. And I did ask, ‘Are you my instrument?’ and over the years, the question has been answered.’
When she met gyil master Thomas Sekgura (whose name translates in English as ‘You’ll Never Better Yourself ’), it struck her that she wanted to study with him and somehow spend a couple of years doing just that. This turned into reality after graduating when she won a scholarship to study abroad for two years and could take up the offer of Sekgura’s apprenticeship.
Back in Ghana again in 2007, she moved with Sekgura and his family to Guo, a deeply rural village near to Nandom, with no electricity or running water. It was a xylophone making – not a xylophone playing – apprenticeship, and her job was to do whatever Sekgura asked, and after that do whatever his wife asked. The money from Burch’s scholarship went straight into building a new weatherproof house for Sekgura and his family. ‘But the first thing we did before we put the floors into the house was make two gyilli and that was my initiation as a gyil maker. Thomas had told me before we started: ‘The gyilli will beat you…’ And I said ‘OK. Sure. Yeah.’ And at that time my hands were softer, I hadn’t made a xylophone before, I hadn’t used an adze [axe] before. So I got blisters.’
While she was making the second gyil, one of her blisters got infected. Every wood has some poison in its oil, but lliga, the wood that is used to make the gyil, is particularly poisonous. Whether it was the sawdust or a splinter, the infection got serious and spread. In spite of injections it got worse and, deprived of sleep, she entered a feverish hallucinogenic state. ‘The pain was a snake that would never let me sleep because it would be changing all the time,’ Burch remembers. She was taken to the hospital in Nandom with her now massively swollen arm and the ketamine injection she received tripped her out even further. She became a totally ‘crazy white woman’ for an hour or two, waking up wailing ‘gyilli beat me, gyilli beat me.’ Some time later, she was told by a volunteer worker from the hospital that they had come really close to having to amputate her hand to stop the infection spreading. ‘It was a profoundly humbling experience. I said to the gyil, ‘I get it. You’re the boss… I’m not making you, you’re allowing me to make you.’ So I stepped back and that’s still part of my relationship with the instrument. It is my cello, my dream instrument, but the gyil is the master.’
‘It is my cello, my dream instrument, but the gyil is the master.’
So Burch’s days would be spent building instruments and the nights were filled with the sound of gyilli, when Sekgura and other players would play. That’s when Burch submerged herself in the music, trying to understand it and trying to play yet mostly failing. But over the weeks, months and years she has found the ability and the knowledge. As she explains, the process really kicked in when she let go of the question of what was going on and accepted the richness of that musical environment through her hands and body.
At the end of the apprenticeship which actually lasted two years, there was a ‘passing out’ ceremony for her at which the tribal elders gave her the name Vula Viel – ‘Good is Good.’ Burch explains it was an acknowledgement that she had persevered and seen it through. Their farewell was summed up in their maxim: ‘All we have given you is yours and all you have given us is ours.’ She was told that she had really helped people there: ‘the good you do will remain when you die.’ Six months later in November 2009, Thomas Sekgura died. Burch attended the funeral and stays in touch with his family and sends royalties, but she didn’t return to Ghana while forming the band Vula Viel as she immersed herself in exploring how the gyil and Dagaare music resonates with and within UK culture, which hasn’t been easy. As she says, ‘being an outsider is easier than facing your own family and being here making this music.’
She’s been making gyilli here ever since her return, each one a little more suited to the music she plays here, rather than the funeral music she learned from Sekgura. Her deservedly acclaimed debut album Good is Good, was released in 2015 (a Top of the World review in #112) – the first realisation of her vision. It was all traditional Dagaare music that Sekgura had taught her, arranged by her but sounding pretty different because of the line-up of her band. ‘I kind of had to do that first… it was all there in my head and I just had to get it out as an album. I now find I have the space for making my own music on this instrument, honouring where the gyil comes from, but I’m exploring what it is about Dagaare music that really resonated with me by writing and playing this new music.’
‘I now have the space for making my own music on this instrument, honouring where the gyil comes from’
One of the most exciting things for Burch about this new music that gloriously pulsates from Vula Viel’s forthcoming album, Do Not Be Afraid, is her gyil – the instrument she’s been playing and refining over the last 13 years. She made it from the ‘finest really dry’ lliga wood, tuned to almost true pentatonic tuning (slightly wonky GABDE). For amplification, instead of the Dagaare calabash resonators, she’s superglued a Piezo transducer (a type of electro-acoustic transducer that turns a touch into a signal or vibration) onto each key and then plugged groups of them into a mixer and out into a pedal. That innovation means she has created her own sound from the instrument, super-rich in buzz and overtones, quite different from the Dagaare funeral timbres. At the recording sessions, which Burch describes as her most creative ever, she brought along her own gyil and Mama Gyil, an instrument that Sekgura made before Burch was born. ‘I’ve always thought I played better when I’m playing Mama Gyil – with her history and status. But on the one tune I tried to play with her, it just wasn’t working. When I tried it on the instrument I’ve been tinkering with for five years, I was flying.’ That was the day when she realised that it is this gyil she has made that has become her instrument – ‘become our voice in the UK.’
Crucially the album presents a debut set of Bex Burch original tunes played by a new incarnation of her band. She has totally embraced writing tunes, crafting grooves, going deeper into the Dagaare forms as well as choosing her own meanings. And this new sparse polyrhythmic network with its intricate rhythm structures is woven by Burch, Ruth Goller and Jim Hart, a trio who strike you as classic from the moment you hear them. The three complement, catalyse and constantly underpin each other. Goller is an exceptional bassist – a serpentine, urgent and muscular sonic presence, whose hinterland includes firebrand jazzmakers like Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down and regular sessions and tours with Malian luminary Rokia Traoré. Hart adds the life force of his exuberant and joyfully hyperactive kit drumming – his musical background includes Cloudmakers Trio, Ralph Alessi, Electric Biddle. Guest vocalists including Gwyneth Herbert, Rozie Gyems and Rita Ray add a further incantory presence.
As Bex Burch starts her year with the release of Do Not Be Afraid, that’s the Vula Viel story to date. ‘All music is influenced by African music,’ she says. ‘This music is
incredible; it vibrates within us, on a quantum level it’s what we’re made of.’
This article was first published in Songlines magazine, issue #145.