In September last year, Help Musicians UK launched the Transmission Fund, which allows musicians to grow through funding career development opportunities such as short courses, workshops or one-to-one coaching sessions. We funded Bex Burch to return to western Ghana where she had previously spent three years living, farming and learning with the Dagaare tribe.
As a percussionist, Bex was enthralled by Dagaare’s rhythmic traditions and principles. The people she met there gave her the name, ‘Vula Viel’, which means Good is Good. It is now the name of her three-piece jazz band featuring Jim Hart (drums) and Ruth Goller (bass). Together they produce some of the most exciting new jazz music on the London scene, all inspired by Bex’s experiences with the Dagaare people.
We caught up with Bex after her time in Ghana to find out what she had learnt from the experience.
Why it was important for you to return to Ghana? What lessons did you take back from your time there?
I first visited Ghana in 2003 and hadn't been very far from home. Everything seemed so different and uncomfortable but the music drew me back again and again. I met the Gyil, I moved there and the things which first seemed 'other' became home. I learnt languages and new grammar, music, food tastes and eating customs, music, etiquette, music, grieving, music, generosity and boundaries in such boundless ways, music again, I learnt how love worked, how hate worked, how loss and gain worked, how we are all the same, how we are all different; I earnt a job there, I learnt how to work hard there, I learnt how to be a woman and how to keep going long after I thought I was tired. And I learnt music. Every day we played, every day for hours I entered the indescribable place which music lifts us to. My body got stronger, my hands got stronger, my voice got deeper, my music got faster. I made friends, I planted trees, I dug a well and I played music!
So when I was deciding whether to stay or come back to the UK, on one side I had paradise, I had worked hard at the everyday stuff like food, heat, language, way of life, all of which had seemed so uncomfortable but just by staying, I fell in love with those same things. And the music, my soul lifting, well that had been there on a plate and was bursting out and overflowing. On the other 'side' in the UK I had the everyday stuff sorted, it was easy in every way, the water wouldn't make me sick, the food was familiar, the language my mother tongue and the ways of life all known... but the music soul lifting side, I had never stayed long enough in my own country to put the work in to make that happen. I saw that I had come to Ghana as a wonderful and miraculous shortcut but that there are no two 'sides'. I am the same person. We all have music and we all have souls to be lifted. I needed to come home, be with my own family and plant trees of music in the UK, so that those things I thought were uncomfortable would become the things I love the most!
Since 2011, this is what I have done. And although the exciting stories seem to be about going to Ghana, the bravest thing I have done is come home and make my music here. This transition and challenge has meant I have purposefully stayed home, not visiting Ghana so that I can start to put roots down here. Staying in one place is far more courageous than leaving. Staying in ones' home is more courageous still.
This year, I decided to go back to Ghana. My dear friend Bamaali, who taught me so much about life when I was in Guo, called and told me I could not send anymore guests (as I have done over the years, advising friends and students to visit the village) until I come in person. Her complaint landed somewhere real. I felt clearly and joyfully that it was time to go back.
Many friends have died since I lived there, the human geography has shifted in Guo as the elders are all gone and a new generation is born. And as I visited the graves of those I missed, I grieved. And as I met old friends, felt homecoming, ate and smelt and played all the food and scents and music of what was my home for a while... oh, my heart broke open again. Ghana was and will always be a country I lived and grew in. Massively important, just like Yorkshire where I was born and London where I love and grow now. And I have no question as to why I lived there so long - the music!
From this trip, I learnt that Ghana was a part of my learning and growing and I am grateful for that, and that I have begun at least to own my music. My meetings with Koo Nimo and Bamaali, the only two elders who have known me for 15 years, both resulted in incredible affirming advice. Bamaali saw instantly that I have begun to compose, as I played her my music, she simply listened and loved and danced. She accompanied me on percussion, an honour as I would always accompany Thomas, her brother. Bamaali has the feel of a master musician, though she has never been called that, neither does she seek it.
Koo Nimo told me simply, don't make what is already there, make what is not there yet. Drink plenty of water and if you quarrel at 9am, forget by 9.05. He listened to my album and is eager for me to come back and perform for his students, many of whom don't take seriously the great wealth of traditional music they have around them. We spoke at length about the intricacies of music, something I give great importance to; even if something is at first difficult to play, we must play it rather than simplify because the science of it works. Koo told me an example of the young people not wanting to put the work in and learn the rhythms, so they simplify them. They think it still works, but it loses something. And now the teachers in the university only know the simple version. Those powerful intricacies are becoming lost.
As I write and try to get my music heard, it is tempting to simplify, at many levels. I don't want to make complicated music just to feel clever, but I do want to really know what and why I write what I do. The parts of music which break me open are simple but not easy. This trip has given me great words from great people, Bamaali, Koo Nimo, John Collins, which when I am doubting, I can fall back on. They have affirmed what I already felt. The music, the people, the at-homeness, the language, Ghana has once again given me a burst of inspiration on how I must live my true life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am improving my writing, I am in love with my band and music, we are developing visuals for the Vula Viel live show and we have a new album, Do Not Be Afraid which is getting ready for release. I am talking to labels about the home for DNBA and Vula Viel.
Our next gig is at The Lescar in Sheffield on 9 May. The Lescar is one of the most generous gigs I've ever played, and I'd recommend to anyone, however far away. It is a home for musicians to share their truest music with dedication and passion, and a home for audiences to open themselves and receive and share that music.
Check it out, there's amazing music every Wednesday. http://www.jazzatthelescar.com/
Vula Viel now have brand new songs from Bex’s travels, and stories to go with them. In their recent performance at the Royal Albert Hall following the trip, Vula Viel played some authentic Africana jazz in a room decked with the images of James Brown, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, creating an electric atmosphere.
Bex immersed herself with the Dagaare and learnt from every aspect of the culture that inspires her music. Bex got creative with her professional development, and you can too!
Find out more about what you can do with the Transmission Fund.