This article originally appeared in Songlines #108.
Matthew Wright talks to a new outfit using Ghanaian Dagaare xylophone music as their inspiration
“The 24-part harmony is not just about maths; that order of notes is essential for the recently dead to pass on to the ancestor world,” says percussionist Bex Burch, who leads her band Vula Viel (Good is Good) from the gyil (Ghanaian xylophone), in a repertoire of Dagaare ceremonial music. “Dagaare funerals aren’t about consolation: it’s an opportunity to confront difficult truths and explore your grief. The harshness of mourners’ judgements often sparks a renewal.”
Burch, originally from Yorkshire, and a classical percussionist by training, learned the traditions as an apprentice to a master gyil-maker from the Dagaare people of northern Ghana. The highly organised harmonic structures, unique to Dagaare culture, are combined with the bell rhythm, found in many other African musical cultures, to create a highly distinctive sound. “Dagaare people really know these songs,” she says. “Musicians serve the community.”
Vula Viel’s music is mesmerisingly danceable and, by Western standards, completely un-funereal. Burch’s gyil – made from sacred lliga wood with gourd resonators – is central. She begins most pieces, staking out the Bell pattern rhythm. “There are only ever two chords,” she says, “and the mother note has to come in a particular place. Other than that, the order of changes is up to me.” And the gyil’s pealing notes have a maternal mixture of the tender and admonitory.
The band’s creation came in a creative epiphany. “In December 2012 I made myself believe I’d won £1 million, and think about what I would do next. The answer was, form a band to play this music.” The line-up consists of drummers Dave de Rose and Simon Roth, keys player Dan Nicholls and saxophonist George Crowley, with occasional appearances by vibes players Jim Hart and Steve Burke. They mostly work in jazz and experimental music, experience that gives Vula Viel its technical confidence and dexterity.
Vula Viel has an album due for release later this year. Burch has begun writing new, more loosely organised material, though it’s been daunting. “A few months ago I was afraid of writing anything that didn’t adhere to strict Dagaare principles,” she says. “I had to be brave, and stop hiding behind other musicians. It was an important step.”
As well as the Dagaare music, Vula Viel has included Steve Reich’s Sextet in their Purcell Room programme. It’s a seminal piece for Burch, which opened the world of Ghanaian rhythm. Yet the shadow of Reich does not appear to intimidate her. “Dagaare music is more complex than the music of the Ewe People, where Steve Reich went in eastern Ghana,” she notes. “I could sit down next to any of the single Ewe parts and in some way understand what was going on. With Dagaare music, all those separate parts are in one player, and you have to really know it.”
Good is Good was a Top of the World selection in issue #112. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs