With his homemade synths and cosmic positivity, Laraaji tells tales of sound with joy. He is a musician, mystic and laughter-meditation practitioner whose decades-long work conveys a spiritual message. Based in New York City, he started out as a street performer in the ’70s, improvising trance-inducing jams on a handmade, modified Autoharp.
When Brian Eno happened to see Laraaji play one night in Washington Square Park, he invited him to record an album for his acclaimed Ambient series, which led to the release of Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. Using strange modes of synthesis, with interlocking rhythms and Eno’s signature sound treatments, Ambient 3 became a pioneering album of the ’80s new age style.
Apart from Eno, Laraaji has worked with artists such as Bill Nelson, Kate St. John, Bill Laswell, Jonathan Goldman and Mayumi Tachibana, with many of these collaborations released on a 2013 anthology, Celestial Music 1978-2011. Through a recent revival in ambient music in contemporary Western electronic circles, Laraaji has emerged again, releasing In One Piece on Stones Throw in 2015, collaborating with Sun Araw in 2016 and releasing a new album, Bring On The Sun, on All Saints Records in fall 2017.
How did your musical journey begin?
I grew up with music that was both from the church, gospel music, and also I grew up with music out of the school system, where they introduced students to instruments. I remember the first instruments available to students were the trumpet, the clarinet and the violin. I gravitated toward the violin. The music that we would play would be Broadway music and some classics, but I also noticed when I listened to radio at home that I’d hum music from the radio, whether it’d be R&B or music that came up from New Orleans, Louisiana.
Maybe I wasn’t conscious of what was going on other than I know I was escaping or I was going to other places very fast. I liked classical music when I was young, too. I don’t remember if I had records or if I listened to it on radio, but my mind would drift.
The visual of the Autoharp struck me. It seemed like that chunky little instrument should be able to do something else other than just play bluegrass.
I grew up in [a] relatively strict [environment]. Whenever I got in trouble, there were usually repercussions. Adults were in power. The household I grew up in, I wasn’t invited to partake in dialog, to understand “You know why we wouldn’t like you to do that.” It was, “We’re the law. Don’t do that again.”
I grew up with a sense that there are boundaries that adults have that you don’t cross. To escape that kind of psychological scenario, I found I could get very far away from it through music: listening to music, singing music and playing music.
At Howard University, Washington D.C, from ’62 to ’64 I studied music theory and composition with a piano major. At that time, classical music was on my brain, but also as a piano major you were required to spend five hours in the practice rooms. I would spend about a half an hour doing my skills and arpeggios and the rest of the four and a half hours jamming.
You studied piano, but you’re known for playing zither, particularly autoharp. How did you end up taking up that instrument?
When I got to New York, the comedy and acting took off. Eventually I started to tour as part of an entertainment troupe. Those experiences brought me in touch with bluegrass performance groups, and in a bluegrass makeup there’s generally an Autoharp. The visual of the Autoharp struck me. It seemed like that chunky little instrument should be able to do something else other than just play bluegrass.
My favorite work is with open tunings. It’s like stepping out of the box or breaking the rules, something I love doing.
I just put that in the back of my head. Every time I would see one, I would think, “That’s an interesting instrument.” I never touched one until the years that I began playing Fender Rhodes as part of a jazz rock group in New York City. It was in the mid-’70s. During the years of playing jazz rock piano, I was playing guitar on my own, just as a comfort zone instrument. One day I said, “You know, I don’t need the guitar right now. I need more money.” So I took it into a pawnshop in Queens, New York.
As I was going into the pawnshop, I noticed this chunky-looking instrument in the window. It was an Autoharp. When I went into the pawnshop, the clerk looked at my Yamaha six-string guitar in a beautiful case and said, “I can give you $25 for that.” Almost in rhythm, I went, “Oh, that’s not going to work.”
Following that, a very clear and very present sort of ethereal voice suggested, or commanded, or advised, that I not take money but swap the guitar for the Autoharp in the window. The presence of that voice was so clear it was startling. There was something in me that responded. “Yes, let’s swap it for that Autoharp.” I also made a deal with the clerk to throw in $5, because I needed money.
My first instinct was just to play it in open tunings. I took that guidance from my exposure to guitar. My favorite work with guitar is with open tunings. If you don’t know what that that is, it’s changing the normal tuning on guitars to one that you can have creative fun with. It’s like stepping out of the box or breaking the rules, something I love doing.
It’s something called the “What if” principle. The big “What if?” factor is how I guided myself with inventing my electronic zither. “What if I played the instrument with that?” I was in a department store in Tokyo one year and I saw these 8" clay modeling sticks, so I said, “What if I played the instrument with those?”
The big “What if” opens up doors of exploring, taking the instrument further outside of the box. Around 1979, after a lot of what ifs, I had developed a vocabulary that allowed me to play on the sidewalks of Brooklyn and in New York with electrically amplified Autoharp, being performed from a trance-aligned state of consciousness. My experiments taught me that music can suggest altered states to people who don’t know how to verbalize it, except in their own language. They respond. They’ll sit down on the sidewalk and cross legs and listen and get into the zone.
When did you begin to get interested in the meditative side of music?
My conscientious deliberative meditation practice didn’t really start until after I had this experience in the ’70s of being in a movie called Putney Swope, directed by Robert Downey Sr. My participation in that movie involved going to an audition, and in the audition I read for one part and they gave me another part. The part they did give me required me to study two pages of the whole script. I got the part down. I went to the filming of it, somewhere in lower Manhattan. I did my two pages.
What I found out is that all the anxieties, worries and problems that we think we have don’t belong to us. They belong to the titles.
I was Victrola Cola, a doctor. That was my role in the movie, and I knew not what the whole movie was about. I thought, with a name like Putney Swope, maybe it was a Greek tragedy that was being rewritten. Months later, the movie came out and I saw it and I was really startled at the idea that I could be a part of a movie or production without understanding what it was all about. I thought, “Well, that’s show business.”
A couple months after the movie came out, I was in Harlem walking around and saw this sign. It said, “We’re having a poetry reading in our church today. Come on in.” I said, “Wow. This is groovy.” I went in, sat down and I listened to this poetry reading. I happened to walk in just when this very young, very energetic black male was reading a poem of his that had a chorus line. He was going, “Da dun, da dun, da dun, da dun. And the n-----s who did Putney Swope should be off. Da dun, da dun, da dun, da dun, and the n-----s who did Putney Swope should be off.” Which means, neutralized. I thought, “Whoa! How much responsibility do I want to take for my participation in the mass media?”
That experience got me thinking, “How do you determine what you want to do in the mass media? Do you want to go for money and fame? Do you really want to take up a psychological, spiritual position?” These questions came very strong for me. That’s when I said, “I want to investigate meditation.” The movie-acting business triggered my interest in knowing more about my internal, spiritual self.
There are some areas of exploration where music will sound like it’s not clear where it wants to go.
How did your spiritual journey progress from there?
I just dived into going to guru meetings and followed different experiments until I found one that worked for me. It was Richard Hittleman. He wrote a book on Bantam Books called Guide To Yoga Meditation. It was his book that demystified the meditation process. Up until then I thought that the people from India had a monopoly on meditation. I felt intimidated. I said, “Oh, they’ve got it and I won’t get it.”
This book demystified it. I would sit in an easy chair and relax the entire body with breathing. Then I would mentally, one by one, just take off all titles, names and classifications that have ever been used to refer to me or towards me. Sometimes it would take five minutes and sometimes 20 minutes. Just take off every single title. “I’m not male. I’m not black. I’m not an actor, musician. I am not an earth being. I’m not an American.” What I found out is that all the anxieties, worries and problems that we think we have don’t belong to us. They belong to the titles. Once I got out of the titles, there was this vast ocean of tranquility and peace and timelessness.
How do you apply this meditative way of thinking to making music?
I don’t generally say to another musician I’m working with, “Let’s meditate.” I don’t do that. We just jump in and usually I’m very close to meditative resonance as a daily practice. It will come through and the musicians I’m working with, whatever their level of openness and spontaneity and alignment with their inner meditation tends to get activated.
We go in through valleys and mountains, oceans and streams and spaces and textures that reflect both a surrendering and a trust. Along the way, because the zither is usually tuned [in] a contemplative kind of a tuning, it usually draws the artist I’m working with into exploring that zone. I’ll go into very quiet, peaceful, sparse, ethereal places a lot with musicians that I work with.
We go there without talking about going there. When I’m collaborating with artists, there tends to be that movement into spiritual, beautiful, expansive, ethereal and celestial passages. Also in my exploration, I’ll surrender to chaotic music during the collaborations. There are some areas of exploration where music will sound like it’s not clear where it wants to go.
Somewhere in the midst of that, I’ll hear something that I’ve never heard before, a rhythmic passage or a chord progression. At that point, I’ll know to stop my exploration and just support this music unfolding, whether it means repetition or consciously not blocking what seems to be happening. Music will happen out of a collaboration that no one going into the collaboration expected.
When I listen to the music [I made in the late ’70s and early ’80s], I’m kind of impressed with some of the styles and elements of the styles I was using then, that I had forgotten. I’m constantly exploring, and in my exploration I tend to forget some of the earlier things I was doing.
Can you think of a good example of a piece you rediscovered and were surprised by?
There’s one piece of music called, “Unicorns On Paradise,” that after I’d done the music on cassette [in 1981] I forgot all about. It has now been released on Celestial Music 1978-2011 . When I listened to it again I said, “Gosh darn, look what I was doing then.”
I hear there’s interest in “Unicorns On Paradise” and I’m kind of impressed. I’m being invited to hear my music through new ears and appreciate it. The recordings at that time were done on lo-fi [equipment]. When they’re bumped up to hi-fi I can hear the glitches. I would have put some bass resonance in there. It sounds very remote and I would liked to have put more presence in there. But when I hear other people talk about those recordings, they love them. I find that the new ears have let me let go some of my criticisms of some of my earlier music.
Has the way you record music changed over the course of your career?
New technologies today allow me to make music that I wasn’t making in the early years. I would play mostly just straight into an amplifier, and then I became interested in phase shifters and reverb pedals, and then loopers and flangers. I was really only interested in working with pedals that I could put in my backpack.
On my album produced by Brian Eno, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, he used rackmount effects by Eventide. I never considered using that on my own because it was not portable. Just in the last two or three years musicians have been exposing me to their equipment, and low and behold I discovered that Eventide is making very compact, portable effects. I’ve been experimenting with Eventide effects – a very creative blend of different effects that allow me to pursue what I call sound painting.
How would you describe the idea of, “sound painting”?
It’s about the images of water and the other elements: fire, ether – which is space – earth and air. Especially water, because I consider oceans to be the neutralizers of our planet. The oceans neutralize the energies of the planet. I felt like if I could bring the Mother Ocean energy into my performance that it would have a neutralizing effect on the listeners, and I found it to be the case. The music I do and the music of other artists who work on that level can serve to help neutralize subconscious stress patterns in the listener, subconscious stress patterns that maybe we all walk around with thinking that it’s normal.
Something you’ve spoken about before is Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms approach, which uses dance to help practitioners reach a meditative state. How has that impacted on your music?
The 5Rhythms dance movement meditation has been a general revolution in my creative performance life. Up until doing these 5Rhythms classes I leaned more towards doing music that was flowing, peaceful and still, sometimes lyrical and repetitive.
I get reports from around the world from people who had been driving their cars through a hurricane and were calmed by Om Namah Shivaya.
Two of the five rhythms that we practice in movement meditation are staccato and chaos. They were two rhythms that I initially shied away from when playing music for a meditative, new age audience. Staccato is a movement of owning clear-cut boundaries and chaos is about letting it all go and trusting.
After going through these rhythms in meditation and owning them, I felt more comfortable with chaos and expressing it in my live performances. I did do that undercover. Now I can do it openly, this owning chaos and breathing and flowing through chaos. In my zither music I explore chaos more freely and lovingly, and also staccato, which can get into more funk-driven, rhythm-based music.
One of your most popular pieces is called Om Namah Shivaya, which is a little different from a lot of your meditative musical work. How did that originally come about?
It was improvised for 45 minutes. I was visiting Florida at the time  and had just done a lunchtime concert for a group of businesswomen. In that concert I just dipped into maybe two minutes of Om Namaha Shivaya and just went on. Afterwards one of the women came up to me and said, “My daughter’s about to have a baby and I would love it if you could quickly produce a long-playing set of that Om Namah Shivaya piece, because we would love to have it playing while the baby’s being born or in the delivery room.”
At that time I was visiting a friend in Florida, a lady friend, and she had a home hi-fi. You know, one of those components with a cassette deck, turntable and tuner all connected together. I plugged in the synthesizer and my microphone and then I just dropped into a meditative zone and brought forth this spontaneous music.
There was a sort of ambient intention with that recording. After I did the recording, I made a copy of it and gave her the copy. One of her friends heard it and said, “I want a copy of that.” Another friend, “I want a copy of that.” I duplicated maybe ten copies to distribute, and more people wanted copies. I gave some to Sondra Ray, who was operating in Florida at the time, and she said, “I want all of my workshop people to have this. Can you produce a hundred of these?”
At that time, I hadn’t made it clear that this music was really intended for a newborn baby coming into the world. Maybe that’s why people were resonating to it. It was finally released on vinyl by Leaving Records [in 2016]. It’s magical. I get reports from around the world from people who had been driving in their cars through a hurricane and were calmed [by listening to it].