One of those albums that’s hard to review, its mix of world music and jazz being possibly unique. You can’t compare it to anyone else and the best comparison we can make is a rainbow: it’s sweeping and colourful, though possibly lacking a pot of gold at the end for the performers.
Some history: Vula Viel was formed in 2013 by Bex Burch. She studied at Guildhall and trained as a classical percussionist, then went away for three years studying with xylophone master Thomas Segura in Upper West Ghana. The band’s name means “good is good” in the Dagare language.
She was taught the Gyil, a large African xylophone made of lliga wood. The sounds of what we assume to be said xylophone define the album.
The PR describes it as Ghanaian minimalism, and this is largely true; there is a lot of percussive minimalistic music, but there are also fuller sections.
The album opens with a cowbell, drums, bass and tooting horn — at first play you think it might be a ramshackle jazz album in the style of Pigbag but it then turns a structural corner and becomes world music. Bassist Ruth Goller supplies a very African sound with drummer Jim Hart giving it a tribal feel, the Gyil supplying the melody.
The opener is Well Come. Track two is Do Not Be Afraid and it’s much more African, the Gyil leading the way and various percussion following, the throbbing bass underpinning.
To be honest much of the album is like that; it’s not quite the dial-up African music you get soundtracking a nature show following the wandering of thirsty antelope but it’s not really challenging either; the Gyil has a warming and gentle sound.
However, Fire opens with electric bass and is more like rock-based jazz than African music, and even when it chills out a bit, and only the sound of the Gyil places this as world music.
It’s pretty good; if they can deliver it live, it must be stunning. The downside is that it doesn’t really develop. There’s a sound Vula Viel are going to make and they make it, which ultimately means this more of a one-play album; you’d not have it on repeat. It also lacks the mystical repetition of more traditional African music, which is based on music played for religious ceremonies.
Gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals, but we guess Burch wanted something more upbeat (though closer We Are is a little mournful). But it’s fresh and cuts through to your ears; if you fancy something a bit exotic while you’re ironing, this is it.
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