Having spent three years as an apprentice gyil-maker in the country’s Upper West region, she’s returned to the UK with mind-melting stick skills and a fresh way of working.
While in Ghana, she was tutored by gyil master Thomas Sagkura, absorbing his unique rhymes and rhythms, and getting under the skin of the local Dagaare culture. Similar to a xylophone or balafon, the gyil is built from wood, gourds and string, and is the main ingredient for many of the region’s music-makers.
Once back in the UK, Bex released the brilliant album Good Is Good, her assimilation of all she’d learned in Africa. The record, plus her poly-rhythmic, jazz-licked live sets, have since earned her plaudits from Gilles Peterson, Iggy Pop, The Guardian and Jazz Standard.
Lucky for us there’s more to come… Bex is currently squirrelled away working out her new record, one that’s written completely from scratch in the Dagaare tradition.
Only popping up for air to play at the Jazz Café, London, on 20 May, the set is on course to be finished before the end of the year.
We caught up with our recent Featured Artist in the meantime to learn more about her rhythmic roamings…
How did you first get in to making music? And why was it percussion that you were drawn to?
I think I was always a drummer, if that makes sense? At different points during my early childhood and teenage years, drumming and percussion resonated with me, and I became more conscious of it.
As a kid I grew up in a Christian household and went to church, where there was lots of singing. From about three years old, I was trained in claves. In the choir, rather than singing, I always wanted to hit things (laughs).
Yes! Evelyn Glennie went to college the generation before me. She just decided she was going to be a solo percussionist, a role which hadn’t really existed before. Power to her. She did amazing things for classical percussion as a solo instrument.
As a girl, when I was figuring out I was a drummer, I felt there weren’t any role models, except for Evelyn - but she’s in a different world to myself and she’s an exception really.
Being a male percussionist is very different to being a female percussionist. It’s just a theory I have, but I think it’s a very different role. I knew I was a woman. I knew I was a drummer. It didn’t click until quite late on that this was something different to the men who were drumming around me.
A big part of that realisation was playing with women drummers in Africa and seeing what I am - something different to men. It’s not something that’s really spoken about very much, but I do think men and women are different, and that’s okay, it’s a good thing. We each have our strengths.
Male drummers are beautiful, I love watching them. I saw a video of men drumming recently, and there was a lot of glistening muscles and showing off and other amazing stuff (laughs).
That’s not to say women can’t do that too, but in my experience, being a female percussionist is more about being the beat-maker, the groove-maker at the back, rather than the soloist.
The idea of role models in that world is quite an interesting one. It notice it’s changing now. I teach, and there are lots of girls and boys in my classes.
You mentioned Africa just then; did you travel to Ghana specifically with percussion in mind?
Well, moving to another country is quite a holistic thing, and my decision was affected by many things. I first visited when I was 19 with a Ghanaian friend from London. He thought I’d love it as I’d been getting into Steve Reich and Bengt Berger, who wrote lots of stuff based on Ghanaian music in the sixties.
When I got there, the country really got under my skin. Then I went back, essentially to figure out more about the music and, after a few more visits, I ended up moving there. When I met the gyil and my teacher, music began resonating with me on another level.
Having studied classical percussion and drum-kit, I still felt there was something more to music I had to discover. When I went to Ghana I felt a real affinity with the xylophone.
How did you become a gyil apprentice?
Thomas Sagkura asked me. I didn’t do a PhD or post-grad or anything, so this was my equivalent. It was quite a subservient role and amazing to have that simplicity of being an apprentice and learning so much in that way. Especially as percussion is quite Jack-of-all-trades. You learn so many different instruments. It was great to be able to focus on one thing. I now have a connection with this instrument, this gyil, from another culture, and I really feel like it’s mine. It’s amazing.
I thought I was going to understand everything and then I met a whole different school of teaching! My apprenticeship wasn’t in xylophone playing; it was in making. The playing is just done at night-time when you finish work.
I had to totally let go and get inside it for hours and hours every day, for months on end, before I could play. All I knew was that I was doing it wrong, and I didn’t know how to do it right. There’s no tuition for that.
It ended up being very much akin to learning a language as a baby. No one teaches a baby words, you just absorb them. One day I played a rhythm and it was right, and I don’t know how I knew it was right. I just felt it.
It was total surrender, I didn’t have control over my own learning. It was about patience, absorbing the culture and listening all the time. That’s very different to the Western education system, where we’re taught to assimilate and understand things in a cognitive way.
It was exhilarating and frustrating to learn music that way, over the months and years. I earned it – and it’s given me a real sense of ownership over the music that’s in me.
Does the function of music differ in Ghanaian culture?
I think music has the same purpose in the UK as over there, but maybe we’re less conscious of it and we talk about it less here. In Dagaare culture, music-making is much more consciously recognised. They admit that it’s necessary, whereas maybe in this culture we pretend it’s not, in terms of our government, funding and education.
In the Dagaare culture, people aren’t taught music who aren’t interested in it. Not everyone goes through apprenticeships, in fact they’re pretty rare. It means that the people who do want to are really self-motivated, and therefore become really excellent at it.
I picked up a lot of amazing things from being immersed in another other culture and I’m now seeing how they can be applied in this country.
Did the experience change the way you think about music?
Oh, completely. Since Good is Good I’ve been writing my own music completely, on the gyil and with Western instruments. It’s going to be subtly, or less subtly, different to the traditional music.
How’s the second album coming along?
It’s been really challenging and inspiring and amazing. I’m loving it. I’m developing the music at the moment and working on the shape.
It feels like the most important thing I’ve done yet - very much based on the tradition, but not the tradition. I’m learning that, by going deeper into what makes the Dagaare music work, I’m finding my own voice among the gaps. It’s teaching me a lot about who I am as a musician, as a female percussionist.
Vula Viel plays at the Jazz Cafe, London, on 20 May, with Family Atlantica. Learn more and get tickets.