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Live: Gonjasufi Presses On in the Midst of Technical Chaos

by Carol Cooper

Better Than: Watching the corny parts of the "Watch the Throne" tour.

Hip-hop has always flirted with spirituality. The S.p.o.o.k.s. and Wu-Tang embraced a Buddhist vision; M.C. Hammer, God's Property, and P.M. Dawn charted with Christian themes; and the 5% Nation attracted many gifted creators of beats and rhymes. But what's most different about the combination of yoga-dharma, Sufism, Rasta altruism, and hip-hop purveyed by Sumach "Valentine" Ecks (a/k/a Gonjasufi) is the psychedelic aspect.

This half-Mexican, half-Ethiopian American boy makes records suffused with the trippy sensibility pioneered by Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, and in his more gonzo moments, Hunter Thompson. Sumach may be Experienced, but he's no blunted hippie. As Rumi would tell you, the Sufi way is a path of Love, but it's a love earned through pain and struggle. So don't be surprised if you ever hear Gonjasufi get profane or aggro on the mic . . . he's merely telling the truth.

Monday night at Williamsburg's Cameo Gallery he was backed by longtime comrades Tenshun and Psychopop of the San Diego-based Skrapez crew. Together they tried to give those who didn't migrate to Manhattan for the Grizzly Bear show something of a 21st-century Joujouka experience. What we got wasn't exactly "Dancing in Your Head" (though much about this crew's production technique is extremely harmolodic), but only because attempts at communal ecstasy were mightily frustrated by technical difficulties.

Normally Sumach lets the polyrhythmic energy of his music work him into shamanic mode, then takes the audience with him. But to sustain the intimacy and intensity of trance-like communion he can't be distracted by sluggish loops or shorts in the monitor. Digital snafus bedeviled his set from the moment he took the stage around 11 p.m. Tenshun's computer wouldn't sync with the turntable. Selected songs refused to load, then wouldn't play at the correct tempos. Stage monitors and mics malfunctioned. Rising above his frustration to deliver memorably kinetic versions of "The Blame," "Kobweb 2," and the black metalish "Suzie" helped Sumach recover momentum, but the spark of holy fire was gone, and the rest of the show, though impressive, left our spirits more earthbound than they could have been.

Critical Bias: I still miss the rustic, trans-generational spirituality of that first Arrested Development album.

Overheard: "Technically I'm a Hindu, so I'm probably not supposed to be into all of this Sufi/Muslim shit. But it's more interesting than Christian mysticism. . . . The teacher is the essential figure in the process."

Random Notebook Dump: Gonjasufi mostly bounced between the 10 tunes on this year's MU.ZZ.LE and the 19 songs from his 2010 debut. At full volume, sequenced and balanced properly, the MU.ZZ.LE tracks create huge vibrating walls of sound that shake the atmosphere of the room like a snow globe. Do the atoms of our bodies also shake apart just enough to let some of Gonjasufi's mojo mix with our own? Stranger things have happened.

Published in: Village Voice, September 25, 2012