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- Rhythm Factory, Poplar »
Before the gig even started, it had all the makings of a classic. Aside from the bitterly cold winter's night, a number of things were encouraging hands to be rubbed together with fitful zeal. It was a one-off UK performance (call it selfish, but it's always a nice feeling to witness something that isn't going to be/hasn't been toured to a listless death). It was due to take place in Aldgate's Rhythm Factory - an odd choice of venue if ever there was one (but, antithetically, quite often a good thing). It was, as already mentioned, fucking freezing (mad weather, for whatever reason, always creates its own buzz). And, of course, it was Gonjasufi.
And you kind of know when a gig involves someone so intrinsically curious, someone so clearly touched by things other than a white, middle class education system, that the night will be similarly compelling. For those that have yet to be introduced to California-born Sumach Ecks - the self-styled Gonjasufi, and one of many on stage tonight performing under the same banner - the book really is as intriguing as the cover. That is, if the book were a timeworn piece of archeology of origins unknown, pertaining to the need for theological universalism, freedom through mysticism and self-realisation.
Gonjasufi's debut opus, A Sufi and a Killer, is a document to all those things. It's a loosely-bound collection of songs and ideas that is, strangely, as easy to connect with and feel some kind of spiritual bond with as it is almost impossible to understand. Anger and recrimination are juxtaposed with tenderness and feelings of redemption. Ghostly, Hindi-influenced hip hop merges with garage rock that actually sounds sweaty and like it was cut with desert grit. Preachy, hoarse-voiced mantras slide effortlessly into stoned 'n sleazy sweet talk. It's an album almost without cogent rhyme or reason, and yet getting lost in its haze of reefer smoke and wraith-like imagery becomes an obsessive, compulsive search for answers; either to Ecks' life or your own. But then Ecks is a man who has clearly fought hard, and in almost complete isolation, to grapple with and make sense of his life. Whether intentional or not, it's close to genius how his grappling with so many musical styles becomes a crazily accurate reflection of this turbulent journey.
As the night unfolds, it often feels like Ecks is still battling, at least musically, with things on stage, but he is most certainly not alone, surrounded by a full live band, members of his family (the dreadlocks tended to give that away), the audience, which is crammed into what is ostensibly a club with an empty bit at the end for 'bands', and, of course, the wall of sound emanating from the club's soundsystem. It's a glorious fug. It comes like a jukebox blast wave of acid punk, West Coast hip hop and pretty much anything that can be attached to an idea suddenly suggested by Ecks or an improvised riff started by one of the the band members.
While this might sound chaotic (and often it felt like this was blissfully the case), the performance, like the album, clings onto some semblance of order. Slack jaws are commonplace. Crowd members are astonished by the punk-ish energy and crackle of certain moments as much as they are bewildered by how unhinged the extended jams and psychedelic forays are. It is sometimes hard to react to things you are shocked by. But it all somehow melds together. The fusion of chaos and order set, almost unwittingly, by Ecks, as he stomps around the stage like a funky Kimbo Slice, ripping off layer after layer to counteract the electric heat.
With his dreadlocked head almost permanently wrapped in a white towel (such are the sweat levels in the venue), Ecks looks every bit the sufi that forms one part of his and his album's character. His presence engenders a host of emotions, from a sense of familial comfort and a strange sort of peacefulness to outright intimidation. Well-built, Ecks prowls up and down like a werewolf after midnight, shrieking inaudible incantations into the humid air. When he's not being faintly menacing he's grabbing the mic and contorting his body to the night's stupefyingly-good basslines and drum kicks.
Ecks once said that he'd be a 'dangerous man' without music. It only takes occasional glimpses of Ecks' deep black and patently tortured-life eyes to understand that. It all makes for great theatre. And by the end it's hard to say if this was a night more of music or drama. One thing's for sure. All of tonight's witnesses will leave the Rhythm Factory a little closer to and yet a little further away from understanding this modern Jekyll and Hyde.
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