Interview / Laraaji 

Since being “discovered” by Brian Eno, in New York`s Washington Square Park, the let`s face it, legendary, Laraaji, has been releasing deeply spiritual and transcendental music for over forty years. His latest recordings, titled Circle Of Celebration, find the Earth-bound astral plane voyager collaborating with fellow travellers, Christopher Bono, Arji OceAnanda, and Bono`s NOUS ensemble, not recreating but rejoicing in the music of the spheres. 

The sessions included a total of eleven players, with all of them contributing to the fluid, flowing, fresh water-like, percussion, and most of them joining in the joyful chants. These human harmonies play a central part in the set, blurring the boundary between Native American song and Hindu mantra, Dominican / Gregorian prayer and Tuvan throat singing. Laraaji leading the way, from low guttural growls to flying, soaring, operatic falsetto moments. Tapping into a universal vibration, and perhaps purposefully demonstrating that we are all of common origin, that we all share the same ancestral root. We are all one tribe. 

Musically, the album rises and falls between ambient streams of sustained notes – strummed acoustic guitar, piano, and Laraaji`s signature zither – and full-on righteous rock freak-outs. The collected collaborators colliding in cathartic climaxes – exploding, exuding, incredibly good, ecstatic, vibes. The improvisations augmented by subtle psychedelic phasing and dub reggae bass-lines. 

Laraaji`s music never fails to move me, transport me away from momentary worries – a bustle of minor irritations and insecurities, uncertainties and self-doubt – to a place where more important things become obvious. After listening, nearly always, I end up calling someone I love. This beautiful new song cycle is no exception. It serves as an industrial-strength spirit-lifting, head-cleaner. Something I personally need now more than ever. 

Laraaji is a teacher famed for his laughter therapy workshops, but I’m not joking when I say it was an absolute honour to speak to someone I consider to be a giant not only in music, but also in navigating this journey we call life. 

A big thank you to both Laraaji, and Duncan Clark at 9PR for preserving and setting this pow-wow up.

Where are you from?

Perhaps from Jupiter by way of Philadelphia, Pa and Perth Amboy, NJ and currently Harlem Village, NY.

As a child, growing up, how did you become interested in music? 

Through a very accommodating public school system and church life in Perth Amboy, NJ my early music interest sparked. The school system allowed us to explore musical interaction through the fife, the piano, the violin, the trombone, and through singing, from early grades on up through high school. The Baptist Church exposed me to choral music, as part of the youth choir. Watching performers on television like Liberace, Earl Garner, Oscar Peterson, Andre Previn, Miles Davis, R&B groups from Motown, The Beatles, the radio and phonograph records were my earlier music inspiration resources.

Do you come from a musical family? 

My beloved mother sang, crooned, chanted and hummed in the house and with the church choir.. She was the only musical spirit in my family.

You majored in piano at Howard University. What made you decide instead to pursue a career in acting? Were in you many stage plays or movies? 

Music was not put aside for acting. Acting was intended to be a strategy for getting financially stable enough to devote my time to serious piano music composition.

A black talent agency, owned and operated by Ernestine McClendon in New York City in the late `60s early `70s, took me under its wings, coached me and sent me out for commercial auditions – stuff off Broadway, radio and TV commercials. I did one stage play, Saving Grace of Humor, by John Tobias, one movie, by Robert Downey Senior, Putney Swope, and one TV play with Morgan Freeman, but I forget the title?

What brought you to New York?

I was strongly advised to explore my comedy acting potential in the Greenwhich village coffee house hootenanny circuit. In 1966 I left Howard University and moved to Harlem Village, New York City. The Bitter End and The Champagne Gallery were two of the popular talent night spots.

Can you tell me anything about your time as a stand-up comedian?

Greenwich Village, between 1966 and 1968, was my major hang out for experimenting with comedy material, until I attracted a manager and a booking agent. After that I toured the Job Corp Camps of America doing stand-up in a trio road tour. I also did a few comedy MC engagements at the famous Apollo theatre in Harlem – announcing acts like BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, Lou Rawls, Carla Thomas, Barry White…

When and how did you first become interested in Hinduism, Eastern religion and philosophy, yoga, meditation? 

Shortly after the film, Putney Swope, was released. I felt a personal responsibility for the film`s impact on the sensibilities of the black community. I questioned my intentions and role in the mass media as an actor, and that’s when things like meditation, mind science, mindfulness, became interesting to me as vehicles for sharpening my sense of personal identity and purpose in the world. Although I grew up in a Baptist Christian community, I still felt poorly prepared to handle the deeper issues of my unfolding career, the psychological issues. It was my exposure to Eastern philosophy that gave me a technique, a method for transcending the problematic identity of a world based on sense of self . The investigation into yoga meditation provided me with a real sense of connectedness to the invisible, non-apparent side of reality. During those practices and investigations I realized that a stronger inner foundation with which to represent myself in the mass media and in life.

Do you practice a single, particular, religion today?

An eclectic menu is my most stable practice – involving mindful breathing, mindful speech, mindful thought, mindful interaction, supported in continuous meditation, contemplation, concentration. Contemplating upon the cosmic sound current. Vegetarianism. Improvisational creativity…and bliss.

What drew you to the zither / auto harp? 

While attempting to pawn an acoustic guitar in Queens, New York, in 1974, an inner soul level guide indicated to me that the zither in the window would be a better exchange than asking for money for the guitar. This inner guiding voice was so clear, and so present, and so loving, that it was my scientific duty to explore where such guidance was taking me. I excepted the guidance and left the pawnshop with this new zither / auto harp instrument – and $5 – and began experimenting ,exploring, co-inventing new music

What made you modify  it?

The well-known acting inspirational premise of “what if” was the guiding approach to modifying the zither. Creative curiosity.

What if I amplified the zither?
What if I played the zither like a string drum?
What if I tuned my favourite guitar open tunings onto the zither?
What if I perform the zither while in deep meditative contemplation?

The story of Brian Eno finding you busking in Washington Square Park is, of course, famous, but had you performed publicly, or recorded prior to that meeting?

Before Brian and I connected in Greenwhich Village, Washington Square Park, I had recorded one solo zither vinyl LP, called Celestial Vibration through Edward Larry Gordon, which is still circulating under the name Laraaji, and soon to be released in a box-set of music released from during that period, around 1979. Also I had recorded many cassettes, which were distributed through local boutiques and specialist record stores that handled new age, experimental, recordings. I had performed at many New York outdoor street festivals, yoga centers and new age conferences before meeting Brian. There was, I had, an original innovative zither performance style in place by the time Brian offered to produce Day Of Radiance.

Can you remember the events of that day?

The north east corner of Washington Square Park was my favorite area for performing Meditative, freeflow, immersive, zither music. As usual, I set up my gear on a mat on the ground with my back against a tree that was situated in this cobblestone circular sitting area, around which there were benches, creating a cozy intimate space. I performed electric zither plugged into a small Panasonic tape recorder that I`d repurposed as an amplifier, and maybe I was using an MXR 90 phase-shifter, while seated in a cross-legged yogic lotus position – eyes closed, freely improvising, while in a deep contemplative trance. After about two hours of continuous performance I closed with a bow, unplugged my zither from the small amplifier, and started counting the donations left in the open zither case. Among the donations was a page ripped from a pricey small notebook. The message was brief, to the effect of “Dear Sir, please excuse this spontaneous note. I am interested in talking to you about participating in a recording project. Could you please call me at this phone number”, signed “Brian Eno.” The next day we had a meeting at Brian’s loft there in the Village to discuss his interest in producing an ambient music album featuring my innovative zither style.

Did you know who Eno was? Did you know about Roxy Music and “Ambient”? 

The only exposure to the name Brian Eno was a month earlier, when a couple of new fans – at the same area of Washington Square Park – after my evening performance approached me and politely inquired if I was familiar with Fripp and Eno. They suggested that I investigate their music and that I might find a resonance there.

Had you ever visited or played at any of Eno`s NYC haunts, like the Mudd Club

The Mudd Club was unfamiliar to me, as were any other of Eno‘s New York City haunts of that time .

How involved was Eno in the recording of Day Of Radiance?

Brian prepared the recording studio with mics, and also applied subtle electronic treatments both during and after the recording session – using Lexicon and Eventide effects. He offered suggestions of ways to explore the zither in keeping with the direction of his ambient series project. I won’t say that I grasped his first efforts at explaining ambient music…In the studio Brian produced a comfortable space for me to explore and to experiment. The name, Day Of Radiance, came through a conversation with my former wife, and friend, Georgina.

Was there a great deal of “conceptual” conversation around the recording? 

Upon our first meeting, there in the Greenwich Village loft, Brian presented his ideas around ambient recording. The concept was clearer to him than to me..but I was totally confident that our studio collaboration would result in something very interesting. 

Where were the recordings made? 

The first studio location was Green Street Studios on Green Street in Soho, Manhattan. There we recorded the first session tracks. After listening back to all of the tracks we felt the that the “DANCE” tracks were good but that the “MEDITATION” tracks had picked up a “foreign” low frequency noise from other areas of the Green Street building. Six months later we recorded fresh Meditation tracks in a different, and quieter, New York studio .

Who else was involved?

No other artists were involved with this recording. Rudy Hui, I believe, was the name of the recording engineer. The album represents solo performance by myself, with Brian as producer.

How long did the sessions take, and how long was it afterwards before the record was in stores?

The two recording sessions were each one full day. The album was released through EG records. I seem to recall recording the first session in autumn 1979, the second session in the spring of 1980 and then the release in autumn of that year.

Did the success of the record see you getting booked for more gigs and performances? Did you begin to get bookings abroad? 

Day Of Radiance was released 1980, but it wasn’t until 1986 or `87 that I began touring, with Opal Evening – a collection of artists who had worked with Brian’s record label. From then on though global bookings and engagements became more and more flowing.

Why did you not record with Eno again? 

I did do a few low profile studio projects with Brian. He invited me to perform and present a laughter workshop for his Luminous Festival, something that he curated for The Sydney Opera House a few years ago. So far we have not entertained doing another album.. but such a project might be a very interesting one.

Are you still in touch with Brian today?

Brian and I are still in contact…emailing every now and then. Whenever my touring took me into London we would consider any convenience to hook up and visit with each other. Our meetings are guaranteed opportunities for laughter.

Did you ever get to work with any of the artists who contributed to the “Ambient” series – Harold Budd, Jon Hassell

No. Unfortunately not outside of those Opal Evening tours. 

Were there any artists who influenced the music you were making?

Dorothy Carter, an Irish-born hammer dulcimer artist who lived in Massachusetts, influenced my exploration of hammered zither work In the late 1970s – and inspired my shift toward hammered zither performance and recording.

Japanese synthesizer artist, Tomita, inspired my interest in exploring expression through synths and keyboards. 

A paranormal sound / vision that I experienced during deep trance meditation in 1974 is the deepest influence on my music making. This event baptized my consciousness in an other worldly sense of time space energy…a sense that I attempt to transmit to listeners through my music making.

Your music is often categorized / labelled as New Age. Would you call it New Age? Or do you prefer the term “sound healing”? 

So many groovy titles. I can relate to them all, and I can be comfortable with them all. When I sit down to perform or record what’s going through my intention is “New Spontaneous Free Improvisation.”

“New Age” as a title is positive for my music. The name suggests a non-traditional, even unfamiliar listening experience…vibrationally immersive listening. “Sound Healing” is also applicable, since my music suggests a nurturing, balancing, harmonization of subconscious stress patterns.

Did you have any interaction with the folks on the West Coast, such as Iasos, who pioneered the genre? I know that Jonathan Goldman for example has been a long-term collaborator of yours. 

Inspiration to expand my musical expression into the field of new age sound music came from hearing the music of Iasos’ and Steven Halpern’s Christening For Listening in the late 1970s. However, it wasn’t until around 11 years ago that I made contact with Iasos and we became closer friends.

Yes, Jonathan Goldman and myself connected while he was living in Massachusetts, in 1982, and working with the New England Sound Healers (N.E.S.H.). We’ve been collaborating on recordings and sound healing intensives since then. Our latest project was the re-release of 1984`s Celestial Realms on vinyl LP.

In the mid-90s you worked with Haruomi Hosono and Towa Tei. How did these collaborations come about? Have you spent a significant amount of time in Japan? 

The Haruomi Hosono studio collaboration – The Quiet Lodge – was arranged during one of my trips to Japan. The session was very intuitive – not much verbal exchange. I may have toured Japan five times since late 1980’s..Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe,Tokyo, to name a few places that I’ve visited and played.

Can you tell me anything about your “Orangeness”? 

Orange is a colour of preference due to its suggestion of transformation, positivity, sun energy, as well as a reminder of cosmic consciousness devotion.

Nous - Circle of Celebration

All of the records that I have of yours possess a deep and pure sense of inner peace and joy. In that respect they can be “mood altering” and a source of strength. The only artists that I find comparable are Alice Coltrane, and more recently Beverly Glenn Copeland. Is there a secret to achieving and sharing this state with others?

Inner meditative practice prepares me to radiate an inner calm, reflective of an impersonal universal connection. This connection is available to anyone..my role through sound is one of holding, providing a space for this potential conscious connection where ever a listener / student / seeker is.

Did you ever have the pleasure of working with Alice, or Beverly?

Shree Alice I only met once, during a seated New York song gathering. Beverly, I’ve yet to meet – however Beverly’s name has come up several times in the last three years as a potential collaborator.

I know that you’re very open to collaboration – the FRKWYS / Blues Control release, and the Audio Active album both being fine examples – Who have you worked with recently? 

Carlos Ninõs, BadBadNotGood, Eddie Cachon, Scott Peterson, Mia Doi Todd…

I`m a big fan of 2017`s Bring On The Sun. How did you meet and come to work with Carlos Nino? 

Carlos and I met in L.A. quite a few years ago. He expressed a genuine interest in the music that I had recorded…inviting me onto his Space Way radio show in L.A., and accompanying Iasos and myself on a California Redwoods interview session.

We eventually did a duo European tour – he as a solo percussionist and I as electronic zither soloist. The tour was very well received. Since then we`ve collaborated on several live performances and recordings projects.

Carlos seems like another deeply spiritual person, all of his recordings are very  very special. Do you plan to do more with Carlos in the future? 

We’re currently releasing a new ensemble project which was recorded at COMMEND in New York City in December 2021. 

You also worked fairly recently with a friend of mine, Jon Tye. How did you meet Jon, and how did the collaboration with Seahawks, on Eternal Beams, come about? 

Jon reached out to me with a lovely collaboration idea..Everything flowed into a wonderful ambient release..Jon and I, though, have yet to physically meet.

Your creative process seems rooted in spontaneous improvisation. Does this make collaboration important? An ever-changing assembly of souls singing in synergy?

Improvisation is a spiritually healthy practice and a portal to unknown music for me ..it is my devotion and self healing.

Can you please tell me more about Laughter Therapy? I know it sounds kinda straight forward, common sense, but how do the sessions and workshops work?

Laughter Meditation sessions open with call and response laughter / chanting then unfold through guided “laughter-cises”, that engage our internal energy centers and glands. The laughing itself is accompanied with us being mindfully and playfully in our “water body”. Natural hilarity comes up along the way as we explore and experiment with internally mobile laughter.

We are then invited to lie down, sometimes with blindfolds, so that we can invent our own inner laughter release in a preparation for private mindful morning laughing practice.

After our laughter release we are guided into fine relaxation and still meditation during which live ambient musical tones are introduced – gong, kalimba, voice, chimes, natural water sounds. The session closes with a total body energizing – movement, song, dance, and optional circle sharing, and closing vocal toning.

The new album, Circle Of Celebration, is beautiful. Was it really recorded in just one day?

Arji OceAnanda and myself recorded our involvement in one day, yes. A non-stop marathon improvisation collaboration…there was hardly any verbal interaction..all intuitive. Christopher Bono inherited the enormous fun of mixing this colossal multitrack adventure. 

Group arji rais 04edit4.byVanessa Briceno[large] copyLaraaji Smileedit4 copy

Photographs of the NOUS sessions by Vanessa Briceno.

Was the whole set improvised? If so, what do you all do to prepare before you hit record?

Yes, total improvisation….mindful centering in the highest available understanding of present time, universe…and fine tuning our instruments to concert pitch. We are continuously prepared for spontaneous improvisation. I sometimes do a yoga stretch and breathing, positive affirmations ,movement meditation, before I hit record.

Had you played / performed together before? 

Yes, we`d performed at 2 events during the months leading up to the Circle of Celebration recording.

The vocals on the album seem to move between Hindu mantra, and Native American chant. In places they touch on Tuvan throat singing and the harmonies take on a Dominican / Gregorian edge. Was this done purposefully, to illustrate that we all have a common linguistic and ancestral root, that we are all one tribe? The vocals in places also recall Leon Thomas. 

The vocals were all intuitive and improvised…but thank you for observing their multiple dimensional colours. Leon Thomas’ live performance still resonates in my memory, and no doubt his energy wafts through my improvisation journeys.

I have to ask, how has the pandemic been for you? Have the periods of enforced isolations been productive, creatively? 

This pandemic period is offering me a long sought after opportunity to stay put and fine tune my inner practice. Lovely amounts of rest and non busy ness. Not having to get on an airplane the past two years is such a deep comfort. In Harlem the isolation comes with access to Central Park, lots of level ground walking, masked mass transportation rides, plenty of outdoor restaurant seating and a vibrant, visible, audible neighborhood. Isolation here in Harlem has been both lively and stilling. With media tools like Zoom and WeTransfer my creative performance flow has blossomed into a refreshing new normal .

The crisis, the uncertainty, etc., has put everyone under a great deal of stress, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Do you have any advice for people who are suffering right now? 

My first aid advice is to create time to be with the breath, relearn mindful breathing, observe the inhalation connecting into the exhalation connecting into the inhalation. Practice this until you habitually are in connected breathing during any and all social, business, medical, personal, public encounters. Politely allow the breath current to be unbroken at anytime. Get better and better at this until you notice the lessening of outer events’ control over your emotional state.

My second advice is to give oneself to more laughter, dancing, chant-humming, and contemplation upon nature. The internet is full of laughter support opportunities, dancing is a way of connecting to my water body – my fluidity, chant-humming is a way of calling my presence into a unity, and contemplation upon nature is a way to feel my bond with her and to receive her nurturing presence.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any performances planned? What are your plans for the coming year? 

At the moment I am involved with several long distance musical collaborations focused on healing, relaxation, and psychedelic therapy. I have two upcoming live concerts. One in New York City in April – “AMBIENT CHURCH”, and the second in Brattleboro, Vermont, at Epsilon Spires – a concert and outdoor laughter meditation with Arji OceAnanda in May. 

Laraaji_set_1_056

You can purchase Circle Of Celebration by NOUS, featuring Laraaji and Arji OceAnanda, directly from Our Silent Canvas Records. 

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