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Vula Viel / Dan Wilkins

Vula Viel / Dan Wilkins, Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 25/02/2016.


by Ian Mann

February 26, 2016


Ian Mann enjoys the thrillingly vibrant and rhythmic African influenced music of Vula Viel and takes a look at their debut album "Good Is Good".

Vula Viel / Dan Wilkins, Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 25/02/2016.

Vula Viel is a London based quintet led by percussionist Bex Burch. She specialises on the gyil, the ceremonial xylophone of the Dagaare tribe from Upper West Ghana.

Yorkshire born Burch is a remarkable young woman with a remarkable story, one which is perhaps best illustrated by my ‘cutting and pasting’ large parts of the press release that accompanied my copy of Vula Viel’s début album “Good is Good”. It can also be read on the band’s website
I’ll readily admit to the charges of ‘lazy journalism’ but I can’t find a better way of summarising Burch’s extraordinary tale;

“Vula Viel (v?’la vi:’?l) means Good is Good in Dagaare, the language of the tribe in Upper West Ghana where Bex Burch lived, farmed and studied for three years. Now it is the name of her group featuring the best of London’s young musical talent: Dan Nicholls (bass synth/keys), George Crowley (tenor sax), two drummers Simon Roth and Dave De Rose. Their intensely rhythmic music is an engaging mix of African, electronica and minimalist influences. Based around the Gyil (the Dagaare xylophone made of sacred lliga wood) Vula Viel brings the powerful ancient Dagaare music into the 21st century .

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 and 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, 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, traveling 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 to Burch’s vision of 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 traveled through centuries of Dagaare tradition, according to tradition it was 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.”

It’s me again now;

Vula Viel’s debut album was released in October 2015 and also includes guest appearances from vibes players Stephen Burke and Jim Hart. As the press release states the music is highly rhythmic but the presence of Crowley and Nicholls also ensures that there is sufficient melodic and harmonic interest to appeal to Western ears. 

The group has gained an enviable reputation for the excitement and quality of its live shows, including an appearance at the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival which had my fellow bloggers and critics purring about just how good it was. I’ve enjoyed listening to “Good Is Good”  and decided to check the band out in a live context for myself. I wasn’t to be disappointed at this well constructed and highly energetic performance at the Hare & Hounds promoted by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation.

The event featured the core quintet of Burch, Crowley and Nichoills plus drum twins De Rose and Roth. Ironically Burch was the one musician that I hadn’t seen perform live before but she soon impressed with her energy, drive and enthusiasm plus her obvious mastery of the gyil, an instrument that surprised and delighted the listener through a combination of its physical size and beauty and its versatility and musicality. Burch later revealed that in a concession to modernity ans particularly the Western live music environment she had fitted the instrument with pick ups in order that she might be heard above the clatter of the two drum kits. Although positioned behind De Rose and Roth on stage her playing rang through loud and clear with the instrument producing an impressive and expressive range of sounds. However I felt that Crowley, who was also stationed at the rear of the stage, was buried a little too deep in the mix and his playing didn’t always scythe through the forest of percussion. He could arguably have benefited from the presence of a bug mic, a thought for the future perhaps. 

Although the smaller of the Hare’s two performance spaces was far from full there were still enough people to create a good atmosphere and the crowd quickly got swept along by Vula Viel’s breathless and relentless enthusiasm. Most of the pieces were from the “Good Is Good” album beginning with the funeral tune “Zine dondone zine daa” (translation; ‘You’re sitting with an enemy, you’re sitting with a drink’) which began with the deliciously woody sound of Burch’s gyil with its wooden bars and gourd resonators. Soon the piece was a sea of swirling rhythm as De Rose and Roth entered the fray, the latter wielding a shaker as well as a drum stick. Even Nicholls at the keyboards performed a primarily rhythmic role with his deep, resonant synthesized bass lines. Vula Viel’s music consists of traditional pieces of the Dagaare and Lobi tribes arranged by the group. It’ was in those arrangements that the Reichian influence came through as the group generated a surprisingly danceable stew of fermenting polyrhythms. Meanwhile Crowley plugged any gaps with blasts of catchy, hooky sax melody. Ironically I’d been to a funeral on the morning of this gig, they obviously do things very differently in the borderlands of Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Another funeral tune “Takyen Korakora” (translation; Don’t go to the spinster’s house) developed more slowly and even incorporated vaguely church like organ sounds from Nicholls but as the rhythms became simultaneously more energetic and more complex the piece exploded into life in the manner of a New Orleans ‘second line’, presumably a tradition with its origins in Western Africa.

Elsewhere we heard the bubbling rhythms of the infectious of “Bewa”, a piece that the album notes describe as a ‘recreational song’ with a title meaning “Let them come”. “Come and Dance” presumably, for I was on my feet by now as were many others at this predominately standing gig. With no jazz solos as such Vula Viel’s music doesn’t lend itself to too much tune by tune analysis, it’s best to go with the polyrhythmic flow and surrender to the rhythm. Even the estimable Peter Maxwell-Dixon on sound was bobbing away behind the mixing desk.

Vula Viel know how to pace a show and the energy levels did not falter as the group’s music edged ever closer to boiling point. Burch was bundle of barely controlled energy as she bounced up and down behind her gyil, heavy wooden mallets flying over the bars. Meanwhile De Rose and Roth, facing each other at the front of the stage distinguished themselves as the best twin drum attack this side of Sons of Kemet with their fiercely interlocking but complementary rhythms with Roth making particularly effective use of bell rhythms. As a member of madcap pianist Elliot Galvin’s trio Roth is used to handling fiendishly complex material and like his colleagues he seemed to relish the challenges presented by Vula Viel’s music. This was a band that played with a collective smile on its face, the joyousness emphasised by Burch’s comments at the end of the funeral tune “Bekone” about music being a “healing force”.

The last of the funeral tunes “Gandayina” (translation; The breadwinner has died) incorporated an impressive set piece for three sets of clicked sticks (Burch, Roth, De Rose) as Crowley and Nicholls sketched melodies on sax and keyboards.

The set also included new tunes such as “Gypsix” with its keyboard and synth intro and heavy synth bass lines, these combining with the traditional African rhythms laid down by the percussionists to create an arresting amalgam of African sounds with the rhythms of hip hop and contemporary electronic dance music, developments that will also have influenced the young members of Vula Viel as evidenced on their recent EP, more of which later.

Another new tune, “Conch”, saw Burch switching briefly to calabash ( I think) while Crowley’s tenor and Nicholls’ keyboards created suitably authentic conch like noises. She then moved back to the gyil for a dazzling solo on her principal instrument. The piece was climaxed by an explosive drum battle between Roth and De Rose as Vula Viel continued to bring the excitement to boiling point.

Their set concluded with “Yes Yaa Yaa”, ironically the opening track on the “Good Is Good” album. The piece also forms the basis of the group’s EP “Yes Yaa Yaa” which features the tune plus half a dozen re-mixes by guests such as Tom Skinner and Ruth Goller plus band members Nicholls and De Rose. The versatile Nicholls frequently plays DJ sets on the London jazz scene.

At the Hare Burch encouraged the audience to sing the line “Yaa Yaa Kolo” (meaning ‘I Beg’) and the crowd responded enthusiastically, responding to Crowley’s melodic prompts. Great fun, and still with time for a final sax solo from Crowley plus more of those pulsating Ghanaian rhythms.

With the crowd in such good spirits an encore was inevitable, a final outpouring of joy and passion with a Nicholls keyboard solo incorporated in there somewhere. The rhythm had taken over by now and analytical thought had flown out of the window but some of it sounded like one of those Yaa Yaa remixes.

Vula Viel are due to return to Birmingham in the autumn for a gig at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Cannon Hill Park. I hope that by then word will have got round about just how exciting a live act this band is and that the venue will be packed. Tonight’s crowd may have been relatively modest in terms of numbers but they responded with enthusiasm and gave the band a great reception making it a successful and enjoyable gig overall.

Meanwhile both of Vula Viel’s recordings are well worth seeking out. With their focus on incessant rhythm some world jazz acts don’t work so well on record but Vula Viel is an exception, their music has so much going on rhythmically and otherwise that the album holds the attention throughout.

Similarly the Yes Yaa Yaa remix EP even though it boosts seven different versions of the one tune (plus one alternative take on the album’s “Lobi). The treatments are all substantially different and hence consistently interesting. This sounds a like a genuinely creative exercise rather than the usual shoddy music industry cash in.

Before hearing Vula Viel we enjoyed a solo kora performance by the Birmingham based musician Dan Wilkins who played an enjoyable set on the twenty one stringed ‘African harp’ to an appreciative audience that included his teacher Seiko Susso. Wilkins has performed on kora with Sid Peacock’s big band Surge and is an also an accomplished guitarist who has collaborated with folk singer Kate Doubleday.

Playing bass and melody lines with a combination of thumbs and index fingers he played an enjoyable set that included both traditional and self penned material including “Kira” (meaning “Peace”) and “Jalia” which also included his own vocals. The performance concluded with the classic kora sounds of the bewitching “Allah La Ke”, a performance of which can also be enjoyed on Youtube.

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