Gonjasufi: A Sufi And A Killer
It is the sound of a man sweating out his demons and trying to contain, within a yogic frame of mind, the urge to throw rocks at cars.
Sumach Ecks is, by his own admission, a volatile man. In one of the very few interviews with him available online, he talks about road rage and facing off against 50 drunk marines who jeered “Bin Laden” at him on a San Diego street. He channels his aggressive energy into Bikram yoga (“I sweat out a lot of these demons I have in me”) and making very short pieces of music in very short periods of time. His nom de guerre, Gonjasufi, signals clear Eastern influences, though he looks more Lee “Scratch” Perry than Osama Bin Laden. His terrific new album, A Sufi and a Killer – 20 sublimated outbursts in 53 minutes – is out March 9th on Warp Records.
Musicians tend to start out rough and hone their craft until the edges have been smoothed away. Ecks, a feature on the LA hip hop scene since the Nineties (and a member of the respected Masters of the Universe crew), has graduated in the opposite direction. The music he self-released early last decade had a hint of the new record’s dusty, brokedown feel but the ruined howl that makes Gonjasufi such a compelling presence was still unformed.
Writing about Tom Waits, another musician who has roughened nicely with age, the critic Daniel Durchholz described his voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”. You could come up with a similar formulation for Ecks’ vocal chords, involving shaman smoke and searing desert heat. His voice is weathered and cracked and sometimes brutish – the sort of growl that might run YOU over with a car given half a chance – but, on tracks such as “She’s Gone”, it hits that Waitsian sweet spot where the bestial becomes beautiful, even vulnerable.
The tension between volatility and vulnerability runs throughout the album, and you can hear it dramatized on “Sheep”, which sums up its predator/prey interplay in the chorus: “I wish I was a sheep/ Instead of a lion/ Cause then I wouldn’t have to eat/ Animals that are dyin’”.
That song gambols along with beguiling dreaminess for the first three minutes (an epic stretch by Gonjasufi standards), until the percussion mounts up and Ecks reveals the basic instincts beneath the cosmic empathy: “I’m a lion, babe/ Feeding of the sheep that graze/ Off the leafs and blades/ I wouldn’t have it any other way”.
Aside from the yoga and the ameliorated growl, the development in Gonjasufi’s sound seems related to his teaming-up, circa 2005, with hirsute LA producer-and-DJ the Gaslamp Killer, who introduced him to fellow Californian beatmakers Mainframe and Flying Lotus (who in turn hooked him up with the UK-based Warp label). All three producers worked on this album, and they have strewn it with sitars, dervish chants, fuzzy guitar freakouts, psychedelic breakdowns, molassesized hip hop beats and even, on “Candylane”, some sleek disco activity.
According to Ecks, he would receive beats from his collaborators, knock together some lyrics on the spot and usually polish off a track in less than an hour. Then he’d spend the bulk of his time distressing it in the mix with beat-up old analog equipment. The smokehouse stage, as it were.
What results is hazed in stylus crackle, and soaked in reverb, and the levels are all askew, but in context it seems entirely right. It is the sound of a man sweating out his demons and trying to contain, within a yogic frame of mind, the urge to throw rocks at cars. It is the sound of the lion endeavoring not to eat the lamb, and occasionally failing in that endeavor. It is the most thrilling release of the year so far.