One of the leading world music acts based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hamsa Lila, recently released a double live CD titled Live in Santa Cruz. World Music Central’s Angel Romero interviewed band member Vir McCoy about the band and the new recording. McCoy plays sintir, electric bass, karkabas and also provides vocals.
Vir McCoy’s inspiration comes from the Gnawa people of Morocco, whom he felt had a direct connection to the healing music of the earth. Vir also plays guitar and was in notable bands, The Mushroom Helmut, Compost, Sasquatch and You. He also works part time as a field biologist with rare and endangered plants and animals.
How and when did Hamsa Lila get together?
Originally myself (Vir) and M.J. got together at an impromptu party in L.A. [Los Angeles] and jammed in late 2000. The room just sort of exploded and we knew it was something special. The sintir and jembe just seemed to fit. Then a couple months later in San Francisco 2001 at another party there was another jam with what would be the early version of Hamsa Lila. It was really amazing fusing all these instruments from all over the world over some funky grooves and sacred chants. We knew it was something special.What is the musical background of the current members of the band?
I (Vir McCoy) was a funk rock guitar player in some local cult bands including the Church of You and fell in love with the sound of the sintir and picked up the electric bass as well to fill in the gaps. I love dub bass.
M.J. Greenmountain had done some soundtracks and played locally in the L.A. area. He has a real passion for the Gnawa and arabic stylized vocals and percussion as well as a West African and reggae influence.
Inx Herman the drummer was part of the legendary South African music scene in the 80’s and did some touring with Sting and recorded with Paul Simon and others. He also tours with Hugh Masekela. He has a real world influence and is one funky drummer.
Deja Solis has spent some time in India and picked up the tambura as well as learning traditional chants and from all over the world. She has a great R&B soul voice as well that’s starting to be in demand.
Nikila Badua was immersed in the West African scene and in addition to her incredible dance and knowledge of sacred chants is a hip hop wordsmith also part of a crew called the Goddess Alchemy Project.
Evan Fraser is an incredible multi-instrumentalist playing everything from Brazilian surdo to east Asian jaw harps to berimbau and kalimba. He studied at Cal Arts in L.A.
Ganapati guested on the album and plays the guimbri, oud, saz and sitar. He has a long list of production credits and a love of mid eastern music.
What does the name of the band mean?
Hamsa literally means hand in Arabic and Hebrew. Its the protector hand almost the way a cross is in Christianity. Hamsa in Sanskrit is the swan of Brahma. Lila is an all night Gnawa music ceremony centered around the sintir or hejooj. Lila also means Night literally and is the divine play in sanskrit. So it has this amazing Indian and Middle east connection. One night trying to find a name someone said "hamsa" and someone said "lila" and someone else said " Hamsa Lila" and after a moment of silence all went "yeah that’s it!"
Would you consider Hamsa Lila a world music jam band?
I suppose it has elements of jam band in the sense we jam ourselves into trance, but its really unique in that we are using ancient instruments over funky grooves with ancient chants mixed with English rap and soul vocals. I call it 2000 year old sacred funk or world groove. Were still trying to figure out what it is.
You use Gnawa sintir and karkabas (metal castanets). What role does Gnawa music play in Hamsa Lila‘s music?
In the early Hamsa Lila days Gnawa music was a huge influence and inspiration but as we never really will be Gnawa eventually we found a more personalized sound that incorporates those elements (sintir and guimbri of course) but has taken it in a much different direction lately combining our love of Rock, Hip Hop, Sacred Music, Electronica and World Music evident on our new release "Live in Santa Cruz".
Did you ever jam with Gnawa musicians? Or do you plan to?
We (M.J) has jammed with Hassan Hakmoun and Hassan’s guitarist and guimbri player Brahim Frigbane played some shows with us. In addition our mentor and teacher Yassir Chadley has played with us. I think it would be great to play the Gnawa Festival in Morocco.
What other musical influences do you have?
Well there are elements of Hip Hop, Blues, Rock and Electronica but as far as world music goes Dimi Mint Abba is great and anything Malian especially around the Niger river bend is great (Takambe Super Onze). Nuru Kane is cool. The list is so huge from Black Sabbath to Habib Koite to Erika Badu to Burning Spear to Blackalicious.
Why a double album?
We felt we wanted to represent what really happens at a live show. Release the whole show. Get into the feeling of a live show.
Do you think the CD captures the essence of your live concerts?
Musically it was a good show, but Hamsa Lila live incorporates a strong visual element with projections and dance as part of the experience. Not to mention heavy Palo Santo wafting around. Its really an experience being at a show, so the music is part of it.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a great reputation for world music. What would you recommend to a visitor seeking world music?
There’s a lot of interesting world fusion popping up with didgeridoos meeting heavy metal guitars and guimbri’s through wah wahs or a jembe and a hurdy gurdy with spoons and overtone singing. Its ripe for the mix and its fresh. Just gotta poke around. Check KPFA’s music of the world in The S.F. Bay. Yossi Fine now lives here and he produced our first album "Gathering One" and is doing some great global fusion.
What projects are you currently working on?
A studio album that’s in the works and an upcoming tour. We took some time in 07 to do some individual and solo projects as well. But the spirit of Hamsa Lila is strong. Check www.hamsalila.com for the latest.