Posts Tagged ‘vula viel’

Live Review | Songlines Encounters Festival 2016, June 2-4

Posted on June 6th, 2016 in Live, Recent posts by .


Simon Broughton, Jo Frost and Alexandra Petropoulos report from the Songlines Encounters Festival 2016 at London’s Kings Place
(Photos by Alex Harvey-Brown, Simon Broughton and Miriam Abdulla)

Thursday, June 2

“I got this bone from my grandmother,” said Karoliina Kantelinen as the audience collapsed into laughter at the thought it might be her grandmother’s thigh bone. Then there was the amusement, for us, as she realised what she said had been misconstrued. The bone for playing the shaman drum was actually from a reindeer, handed on by Kantelinen’s fondly-remembered grandmother.


The story underlined the intensely personal nature of Värttinä’s music, founded over 30 years ago by Mari Kaasinen, still at the centre of the group. There were songs they’d written about their own experiences and songs they’d learnt from old singers they had met over the border in Viena Karelia, Russia, one of the heartlands of Finnish culture.

For Songlines Encounters, they did a superb set as just three vocalists without their regular backing band. It brought a great sense of women power. They accompanied themselves on kantele (the zither that is Finland’s national instrument), flutes and superb accordion playing from Susan Aho. But the highlights were the a capella numbers, which really emphasised the superb focus and versatility of these singers. Melodies, shrieks and percussive vocals create an astonishing range of textures and make this music that is distinctly local in origin work on an international stage. And Värttinä perform it with an infectious joy.

Simon Broughton

John Williams & Derek Gripper
Friday, June 3 

This was one of the most successful concerts we’ve held at Songlines Encounters. Not only because it sold out, but because it revealed two different musical personalities exploring, mainly, West African kora music played on classical guitar. Arranging kora music for guitar has been the passion of Derek Gripper for the past 15 years or so. Kings Place is perfect for a concert like this where you can concentrate on the intricacy of the playing and enjoy the warm, rich sound.

They opened with the two of them playing together, then Gripper doing a solo set, followed by Williams, and then joining together again at the end. The fundamental question is why listen to kora music arranged for guitar when you can easily listen to Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté or Seckou Keita playing the real thing? This concert clearly demonstrated why it’s worth doing. It becomes rich and beautiful concert music on the guitar with a totally different acoustic. Gripper brings a whole variety of textures to his playing, delicate harmonics, snapping  the strings, abruptly stopping them and knocking the neck of the instrument. These come from kora techniques, but never just imitate them.

John Williams took an accompanying role in the duo repertoire but showed the smooth and refined style that he’s famous for in the singing legato melody by Paraguayan composer Agostín Barrios in the first of his solo pieces. And followed with some dance-like Venezuelan repertoire.

Together they created a rich and intricate sound that is beautiful and absorbing. I think we all felt it was something very special.

Derek Gripper plays Thursday June 9 at Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth, Wells and Friday June 10 at Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan.

Simon Broughton


Vula Viel
Friday, June 3

After the serene intensity of Friday night’s first billing of Derek Gripper and John Williams’ guitar duets, the concert in Hall 2 proved to be a wonderful foil. Vula Viel are a London-based quintet, led by Bex Burch, a classically-trained percussionist. Burch became interested by the minimalism of Steve Reich and how Ghanaian music influenced him, so she went to Ghana and spent three years studying the Dagaare gyil (xylophone). Gyil music is mainly ceremonial, in particular it’s played at funerals. “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 told Songlines in June 2015.

Vula-Viel-©Miriam-AbdullaVula Viel means ‘Good is Good’ – and it’s the name Burch was given when she had finished her apprenticeship. The focal point of the band is the gyil, with the two drummers – Dave de Rose and Simon Roth – sat on opposite sides of the stage so that they could eyeball each other as they played with incredible precision. George Crowley swayed back and forth behind Burch on sax and Dan Nicholls looked unassuming yet has an integral part in creating the band’s hypnotic sound on synth and keys. I was initially stood at the back of the hall and was convinced that Burch had smuggled a trampoline onstage as she bounced up and down, left and right Zebedee-style, a completely compelling figure. I found myself drawn to the front to join in with the crowd who were dancing and soaking up the incredible energy emitting from the musicians. They played tracks from their debut album and also some new compositions, with Burch giving brief introductions and fascinating insights into Ghanaian life. One of the tunes translates as ‘You’re Sitting with Your Enemy, You’re Sitting With Your Drink,’ and Burch explained that it’s a common occurrence in Ghana to put poison in drinks, so you never accept a drink from someone without them drinking it first – so there was much amusement when just after this explanation, the stage manager came on with bottles of water for the band.

Vula Viel really embody what Songlines Encounters is all about – music deeply connected to a tradition, yet new, exciting and innovative at the same time. There’s no denying that they really are very good indeed.

Jo Frost

Roby Lakatos
Saturday, June 4

On Saturday afternoon, Kings Place was treated to a second performance by the sublime pairing of John Williams & Derek Gripper after a sold-out show the previous night. What followed later that evening was something completely different – flashy music from Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos. 

Lakatos is a descendant of the legendary violinist János Bihari (1764-1827). Bihari’s playing, rooted in traditional dance music, became the sound of 19th-century Hungarian music. He would go on to inspire composers like Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, so it seems perfect that Roby Lakatos straddles the line between classical and traditional performance, though for this show he focused mainly on his Gypsy repertoire.

The flamboyant violinist came out on stage dressed in bright red trousers, a long blue jacket and his signature halo of grey hair, and he was joined on stage by Jenő Lisztes (cimbalom), Kalman Cseki (piano) and Vilmos Csikos (bass). Lakatos paced himself, starting with an elegant opening over a shruti box drone that sounded as if it could have been improvised. But it wasn’t long before he launched into his trademark nimble fingerwork for an uptempo Gypsy swing piece, complete with slap bass from a giggling Csikos.


Throughout his set, Lakatos’ unbelievable playing was definitely on display. His fingers can certainly move faster than you expect is possible, and he showed off the most impressively fast double-fingered pizzicato playing I’ve ever seen. But the virtuosic playing didn’t belong to Lakatos alone: Lisztes’s cimbalom playing was out of this world, especially on his arrangement of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’; Cseki’s playing on the piano was expertly jazzy or classical whenever the mood called for it, and Csikos put on an excellent show on the bass, and the fact that he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself – even throwing in a joke glissando in the middle of one of Lakatos’ solos – meant he was a joy to watch.

Unlike any other Songlines Encounters Festival performances to date, this was an evening of mind-blowing virtuosic technique from a quartet of musicians who are certainly not only at the top of their own game, but at the top of anyone else’s game too.

Alexandra Petropoulos


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Introducing… Vula Viel

Posted on May 23rd, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


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:

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Songlines Encounters Festival 2016, Kings Place, London, June 2-4

Posted on April 1st, 2016 in Live, News, Recent posts by .


Photography by Seppo Samuli

Songlines Encounters Festival returns to Kings Place, London, in June

Celebrating its sixth year, the upcoming Songlines Encounters Festival champions adventurous and groundbreaking artists we feel passionate about. This year’s programme of concerts features music from South Africa, Mali, Hungary, Ghana, Finland and the UK.

Book your tickets on the Kings Place website or call +44 (0)20 7520 1490.

Thursday June 2, Hall 1, 8:00pm

The trio from Finland’s Karelia region perform the UK premiere of their new album Viena, selected as a Top of the World choice in our latest issue (April, #116). 
 ”I’m delighted that we’ve been able add Varttina for the opening concert of Songlines Encounters this year. They are extraordinary singers and with Viena they have made music that is wonderfully fresh from deep traditions that go back years,” says editor-in-chief Simon Broughton.


Friday June 3, Hall 1, 8:00pm AND Saturday June 4, Hall 1, 2:00pm

John Williams & Derek Gripper
Acclaimed guitar virtuoso John Williams plays alongside South African guitarist Derek Gripper; as well as playing solo, the pair will play a selection of kora music of West Africa arranged by Gripper.

Due to popular demand, the duo will repeat Friday’s performance the following day at an earlier time of 2pm.


Friday June 3, Hall 2, 9:45pm

Vula Viel
London based five-piece Vula Viel, led by percussionist Bex Burch, showcase their versatile mix of electronica, minimalism, and Ghanaian Dagaare xylophone music.


Saturday June 4, Hall 1, 8:00pm

Roby Lakatos Ensemble
Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos revisits some of the Gypsy repertoire of ancestor János Bihari. The Stradivarius player will delve into rare pieces of music ingrained in the family tradition.


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Album Review | Top of the World | Vula Viel – Good is Good

Posted on October 31st, 2015 in Recent posts, Reviews by .


Words by Martin Sinnock

Vula Viel - Good Is Good Cover

Good is indeed good – as this album proves

This is an album of powerful instrumental jazz, based on the ancient traditional music of the Dagaare tribe and Guo people of northern Ghana. The musicians are all based in London and are led by Bex Burch who has lived, farmed and studied for three years with the Dagaaba. Burch served an extended apprenticeship making gyil (wooden xylophones) and it is this instrument that leads the Vula Viel ensemble, supported by keyboards, drums, saxophone and vibraphone. The result is a highly rhythmic, almost orgiastic, barrage of brilliantly performed jazz.

The album is grounded in functional local tradition: four of the tracks are based on funeral music while the other three are recreational. It is during Ghanaian funerals that the gyil, made from sacred Iliga wood, finds its principle performance platform. Despite, or perhaps partly because of this, the entire album has a joyous, celebratory and explosive quality. Vula Viel have taken possession of something very special and created an album that sounds new and vital.

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