(Liam Izod - first published in Songlines #116, April 2016)
Funerals have never sounded so funky. British five-piece Vula Viel lit up Sheffield's Lantern Theatre with Ghanaian grooves based on the exuberant funeral music of the Dagaare tribe. The band's earthy ostinatos are anchored by Bex Burch's gyil, a Dagaare instrument akin to a xylophone, which Burch spent over three years studying as an apprentice gyil maker in Ghana.
Vula Viel's pieces are expertly crafted. Assymetric patterns as the bedrock for polyrhythmic explorations. The music undulated with subtle irregularity, like clay turning in one's hands upon a pottery wheel. The musicians clearly delighted in it. Dual drummers Dave De Rose and Simon Roth shot grins across the stage as readily as rattle-snake rim shots and syncopated tom thumps.
The audience was offered a means of cracking the intricately coded grooves through Q&A sessions during the first set. The conversation alternated with the music , the raison d'etre of the TalkingGigs series, to which this performance belonged.
What the audience learned about in the first half, they felt in the second, as Vula Viel communicated the freedom and freshness of this disciplined music. Dan Nicholls' crunchy keys added electro undertones to the highlife hum, and tenor saxophonist George Crowley's punchy lead lines and rousing solos suggested what might have happened had Michael Brecker sat in with Fela.
The group's debut album - Good is Good - was released last year, and on the evidence of this performance, good is going somewhere fast!
Photographs - David Reid
I first saw Vula Viel at the Lescar pub in Sheffield as part of the brilliant Jazz at the Lescar series in Spring 2015. The place was packed and really jumping - but between some of the storming pieces, band leader and gyil player Bex Burch talked a little bit about her time and experiences in Ghana, learning to make and play the gyil, and the role the of the instrument and music more generally in the life and ceremony of the Dagaare people ... and I was hooked! I knew that this could make the perfect TalkingGig - exceptional music but with an equally extraordinary set of stories behind the music and the band. Bex was immediately up for the concept ... and a mere 8-9 months and debut album later it finally happened ... Vula Viel on stage at the Lantern Theatre.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with Bex exploring a whole range of tales and stories - and then discussing how we could hone this down to the strictures of the TalkingGigs format. I knew that VV's music needed to have the space to build a real groove so was pretty certain that this would fit my preferred model of a first half of conversation punctuated and illustrated by music with a full-blown performance in the second half. But that really restricts the time for talking and the number of topics we could even touch on ... especially since it was important to hear from the whole band.
Looking back, I think that this whole show worked perfectly - the chat gave the audience a chance to learn a bit about Dagaare culture but also to recognise and play with the bell-pattern rhythm which underpins so much of VV's music. I was delighted to see drummer Simon Roth nod to the audience as he began one piece with that now familiar pattern! Several members of the audience told me how the first half had really helped understand and draw them into the music ... which is just how it should be ... and what an astonishing second half!
I'm indebted to Liam Izod and our friends at Songlines magazine for the review below, which explores the music more eruditely than I could ever do ...
" Funerals have never sounded so funky."
Friday 15th January 2016
The Lantern Theatre, Kenwood Park Road, S7 1NF
Thursday 10th November 2016
Yellow Arch Studios, Sheffield
Vula Viel - Yellow Arch Studios (10th November, 2016) - Stan Skinny (first published in Now Then magazine)
I arrived at Yellow Arch with chattering knees on a bitterly cold evening, largely wanting to stay in and hug the radiator all night. I’d also spent the day sawing loft installations and my eyes were red and sore. So the gig could have happily not happened for me as I shuffled uncomfortably in ten layers of clothing, not even willing to take my bobble hat off. But within the first 30 seconds I knew I’d made the right choice, as I was quickly warmed up by this rhythmic five-piece from London.
Vula Viel translates as ‘good is good’, and it’s hard to argue with that. Here was an ensemble of talented musicians playing infectious, traditional Ghanaian music with aplomb. They delivered an intense and energetic performance that seemed to push the performers physically to the edge. In particular, saxophonist George Crowley played to the point of pain as he let out small yelps after squeezing every last breath out of his lungs. Which, without sounding masochistic, is just the commitment you want to see from a band on a cold Thursday night.
The band played with real heart, soul and love, and this was evidenced no more so than through the leader of the group, Bex Burch, who energetically bounced on stage and made bashing the gyil (a type of xylophone, since you asked) look like the most fun instrument in the world.
My only disappointment was that it was seated gig. As much as the band were at home in a jazz club, there’s no doubt they would storm a sweaty festival tent or club with their soulful, danceable vibe. They certainly raised the roof here, even with my adroit loft installation skills.