The seeker: Gonjasufi on yoga, his singing style and the ongoing quest for enlightenment
Sometimes, an artist selects an alias perfect enough to capture his aesthetic in a couple of compound nouns. Gonjasufi, nee Sumach Ecks, the Warp-signed, warped-voice entity residing in the Mojave Desert, is one of those anomalies – with a nomenclature so appropriate as to rival the Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Let's break it down: Gonja, the misspelled variant of the Sanskrit word for hemp, and also a kingdom in northern Ghana. A Sufi is a member of a mystical ascetic Muslim sect seeking to remove “the false self and discover god within.”
Ecks crafts exotic tunes for the narcotically and spiritually inclined, unleashing an arid sun-ravaged wail that seems like it seeped up out of the sand dunes, buried under brutal elements and hundreds of pounds of pressure.
The Sufi seeks illumination, and speaking to the dread-locked and biblically bearded 32-year-old, one quickly becomes aware that Ecks’ path is that of the searcher, someone entranced by the idea of enlightenment, rambling down dozens of weird roads and way stations in search of that elusive ideal.
Raised in San Diego and initially drawn to hip-hop, Ecks sharpened his incisors as a DJ and MC in the underground, rapping and producing in the crew Masters of the Universe. In the early years of the last decade, the now Las Vegas resident started singing, but he didn’t hit upon his current style until after discovering Bikram Yoga. After surviving the notoriously grueling teacher training progress, Ecks became “reborn,” discovering his bent banshee wail – a protean and haunting voice at times resembling Tom Waits had he been weaned on boom-bap, the cracked falsetto of late-period George Clinton or the gruff rasp of Captain Beefheart singing over beat music.
With a sonic framework supplied by the best of Los Angeles’ current beat generation (Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, Mainframe), Ecks’ official debut, “A Sufi and a Killer,” lives up to its title – a fierce lost world of Turkish psych-samples, Arabic chants and a surreptitious slinking groove, crossed with the Dilla and dubstep-inflected Low End theory aesthetic. It’s the sort of album that jars you on first listen, but eventually wears itself into the grooves of your synapses, alternately bizarre, baleful and beautiful. In advance of his performance tonight at the Echoplex (along with Gaslamp and Mainframe), Ecks spoke to Pop and Hiss about yoga, hooking up with Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer and how he honed his singular style.
You’ve credited yoga with helping you tap into a deeper consciousness and musical creativity. How did you get into the practice in the first place?
In [San] Diego, I was pumping fuel at Lindbergh Field. I was a supervisor driving big 8,000-gallon trucks, pumping jet fuel on the airplanes -- it was a really toxic environment. Before my daughter was born, I’d been bumming it on the streets, sleeping on couches or in my car, then I met my girl, got her pregnant, stopped doing drugs and got a job. The job at Lindbergh was the only job I could get because of the way I looked, and then one day, one of my boys visited me at work. He was a yoga instructor and smelled the fumes, and was like, "You gotta change jobs." He invited me to work at the front desk at the yoga spot he worked at. So I did and went from working the desk there to taking classes, and then to the Bikram Training School.
Bikram training is a notoriously intense process. Was it pretty difficult to get through?
It was brutal. Normal classes are 105 degrees, but during the training it was 133 degrees. In that first week, I felt like I died, probably because I almost did. I had to get an IV put into me, and my kidneys nearly failed from the heat and strain. I cramped up from my toes to my jaws. My abs jumped out of my stomach by a foot. I was convulsing. I had to squeeze every muscle out of my body. It was by far the most excruciating pain I’ve ever been in. I broke my hip bone and pelvis and femur in an auto accident in 1998, and that couldn’t touch the pain I endured at Bikram.
I felt like I died on the mat and was reborn and sweated out all these inner demons. That was the first time I was able to stop smoking weed. Instead of seeing myself in the first, second and third person, I started going to the fourth and fifth and sixth. I practiced everything in my meditation and started seeing how many of my selves I could see. It was the first time I’d ever been able to entirely empty my head.
What did you take from the process?
It allowed me not to fear anything. I stopped being afraid of myself. I had previously been afraid of the ocean, but I went into it for the first time. I had feared hitting different parts of dark spots in my mind but I learned to stay there until I built light. It’s part of the quest for enlightenment, going to these dark spaces until you can find light physically and metaphysically and then applying that to the world. People say that fear isn’t real. Fear is definitely real but what you do with it is your reality. I found a way to use it positively and elevate myself and my work.
You’ve said in interviews that it was only after the yoga training that you "found" your voice. Had you been singing before that or just rapping?
I had sung before, I was always really into Tricky and Massive Attack, but my singing wasn’t as strong as it is now.... I didn’t really start an aggressive rap style until after my training. Before that, it was like a low-key chant. After the training, I was rapping aggressively. I learned to approach the mic without thought and with pure emotion, cutting rap albums in the same session. I found a balance using both creative outlets.
Did the connection to Gaslamp Killer come from your San Diego days?
We’d known each other for a long time, but one day we were chilling at my boy's house and [Gaslamp] was playing me some edits he’d done on some Ethiopian beats he’d made. So he played me the chops and I was like, "What are you going to do with it?" He didn’t know, and I told him I wanted to sing over it so he gave it me, and then I didn’t record anything and moved to Vegas.
Later on, I had a recording session with Blu and Mainframe and I was shrooming and taught them the Pranayama and ended up recording to it. Later on, I played it to [Gaslamp] and he went berserk. From there on, it was light-speed ahead.
Photo via Theo Jemison
Gonjasufi (DJ Set), the Gaslamp Killer and Mainframe, Monday night at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd. 9 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of the show.