Mojave Heart

Famous abroad, electronic artist Gonjasufi harnesses the desert stillness to make new music

When Sumach Ecks enters a room, especially the chillingly suburban Yard House in Red Rock Resort, he stands out. Intensely dreadlocked hair. Compact physique. Athletic gait. Air Mozambique T-shirt. The Las Vegas musician’s distinctive physical presence mirrors his aggressively spiritual, stunningly gorgeous music, which he records under the name Gonjasufi.

While this psychedelic electro-soul musician is virtually unknown in the local scene, his music is hardly obscure. He is signed to the esteemed British electronic music label Warp (Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus). His two albums enjoy high critical praise. (Pitchfork hailed his 2010 Warp debut, A Sufi and a Killer, as “haunting and haunted, coolly assertive.”) He even toured Europe with a live band this summer to packed clubs and much approval. But Gonjasufi has only performed live in the U.S. a few times, and never in Las Vegas.

Perhaps his next project will change that. To tide over fans until the release of his full-length in 2012, he’s releasing an as-yet-untitled free digital EP Ninth Inning later this month. He e-mailed me a few raw, unmastered mp3s, and I can tell you it’s a shambolic four-song collection of dark, apocalyptic grooves. His voice, while not conventionally appealing, is a thing of eerie beauty, tinged with mysterious foreboding.

“Revolt is coming,” he says. “If something doesn’t happen in the U.S. next year, I’ll be surprised. I’m into the doomsday zombie shit, which is what this EP taps into.”

The music suggests that Gonjasufi has a lot weighing on his brain—from the controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia to the floundering and deeply compromised presidency of Barack Obama. Lyrically, none of these issues are spelled out, but political tension marks every dirty bass-drum kick, every wickedly noisy note coming the listener’s way.

Now Gonjasufi needs a drink. Forget the Yard House’s vast beer menu; he’ll take whiskey. After downing a shot, he says, “I’m only drinking this now to keep the voices out. My hearing is too sensitive. I can understand conversations at the bar’s other end.”

Indeed, it was the noise generated by his hometown of San Diego—where he was a teenage prodigy of the early ’90s underground hip-hop realm, particularly the Masters of the Universe crew—that led him to relocate to Las Vegas five years ago. He now lives in a house at the very edge of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The silence of the desert is what drew him here. It allows him to develop his musical ideas without being influenced by lesser talents, lame trends. When he reaches a creative roadblock, he wanders into the desert, clearing his brain, opening his heart.

This search for transcendence is a big part of his music. Gonjasufi is an avid yogi and occasionally teaches at Bikram Yoga Summerlin. The 33-year-old husband and father of four uses the ancient practice to keep him “heart-centered.”

“For me, yoga is also about being here now,” he says. “It allows me to project light, love and substance, and not be afraid of change—for instance, this new EP, man. It’s brutal as fuck, and slow. I had to change everything; there was no other choice.

“I had to live completely in my heart for these new songs to come out,” he continues. “For me, it’s about the experience of making art. Every time, I have to ask myself: ‘How far are you willing to go?’ Sometimes I need to enter the most fearful, the most frightening, spots inside me before I can write or record a note of music.”

If it all sounds a little metaphysical, that’s because Gonjasufi prefers it that way. His name is a clever mashup of the Sanksrit term for cannabis (ganja) and a sect of mystical Islam (sufi), a combination that symbolizes his work’s twin themes of psychotropic stimulation and religious spirituality.

This philosophy might explain why Gonjasufi will likely remain one of the desert’s buried treasures. He’s not going to hustle himself or his art to play a nightclub on the Strip for shiny shirts. If you really want Gonjasufi, you’ll book him. Which is more or less what happened with his 2008 breakout song “Testament.” The Middle Eastern-raga-jazz-standup-bass-mindfuck masterpiece was a collaboration with notable experimental laptop musician Flying Lotus. The song appeared on Lotus’ critically acclaimed Los Angeles and is considered the album’s moody, dub-kissed highlight. Warp signed him immediately upon hearing the track.

“You have to really feel me to find me, as you did,” he says. “You came to me because I didn’t care. People get too caught up in social media, the vacuum of egos. I’m done with all that shit.”

For now, Southern Nevada offers that solace from the chatter of pop culture. However, I can’t help but suspect that Las Vegas remains a way station in Gonjasufi’s larger creative sojourn.

“It’s true that I need the ocean, too,” he shrugs. “To survive here, you have to adopt reptilian characteristics. This is one fish that doesn’t want to die in a desert.”

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