It’s 9:00am on the dot when I pick up my phone to dial a New York number.
It rings once.
“Vivian!” the voice on the other line exclaims. Yes — not states; not says — but exclaims! As though we had known one another for years, and he had long been expecting my call.
Because it’s rare for any musician to respond to a minor indie journalist in this way, I’m caught off-guard and bumble through a number of clumsy mumbles before I apologize for my incoherency. The voice on the other line consoles me; the bumbling is “charming,” it says, which henceforth lifts the spell. I start speaking with some semblance of normalcy.
You see, I wouldn’t usually approach an elder in such an unprofessional manner — but today, I am speaking to the multi-instrumentalist and modern New Age music legend, Laraaji — and he feels so approachable that I’ve unwittingly spouted out a firehose of verbal flubber. He, on the other hand, remains perfectly composed, despite the fact that he has already done an exhaustive series of interviews similar to the one we are about to embark on. I am grateful.
This chiller is Laraaji.
Laraaji, whose name honors the divine energy of the sun, is a radiant personality who often plays up solar influences by dressing head-to-toe in a bright orange color, considered by Eastern yogis and color theorists as symbolic of transcendence.
Sun Piano, his summer 2020 release on the British label, All Saints Records, marks Laraaji’s light-hearted, glowing return to piano after decades of focusing more on other instruments. The first of a three-album series recorded in Brooklyn Unitarian Church and lovingly sequenced by ongoing collaborator and Warp Records producer Matthew Jones, Sun Piano will be followed in the fall by the more somber Moon Piano, and finally, by Through Luminous Eyes, a hybrid of piano and zither, which references the idea of “seeing in a new age… at the frequency of light [and] the light body.”
At the time of this interview, the United States remains in quarantine due to COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests are in full swing. Hence, as I launch into our conversation, I am eager to satisfy my curiosity about Laraaji’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. In the early ’60s, he had been attending Howard University, a historically black college located in Washington, D.C., so a large part of me hypothesized that an artist who makes healing music would undoubtedly have been an outspoken civil rights advocate as well.
But that assumption, I soon realize, is unjust; it places limitations on the multiplicity of human experience and severely limits the multi-dimensional nature of spiritual beings. While Laraaji touches briefly on being involved with NAACP prior to college, it is merely a touchpoint — and it takes me some time to figure out why I don’t find his lack of political engagement disappointing.
“From ’66 to ’72, I moved away from Washington, D.C. to New York to pursue comedy and acting and filmed television commercials,” Laraaji recalls. “That probably led me to investigate spirituality and meditation and altered states and different kinds of mind-consciousness practices, in order to feel more secure about being in the mass media.”
His investigations into consciousness have since unfolded in fascinating ways — including a number of wondrously creative “life is stranger than fiction” moments that have subsequently redirected the course of his life. As someone who experiences similar things, I want to dig into the roots of this universal magic… but I’m nervous about tackling such a daunting topic.
Hence, I slowly and awkwardly venture, “This is a very pointed question, and a very large question… but how would you summarize your spiritual beliefs, in general?”
I then hold my breath, fully expecting some sort of long diatribe; some kinda unwieldy verbal tome or epic oration which will stir my senses and move my spirit —
Instead, Laraaji pauses for a second to smack his lips, then simply replies:
A brief pause.
Laraaji’s spiritual beliefs are “this moment”?
We both burst wildly into laughter.
It feels too abstract to make sense. But when one understands how Laraaji embraces “this moment” as a way of being, one uncovers the many profound and life-changing “this moment”s that have illuminated his path towards becoming an artist and healer. This interview investigates a number of them.
In a recent COVID-era livestream performance for Boiler Room, an orange-clad Laraaji sits before a zither and clashes stylishly with Mr. Love, a giant, floppy green frog puppet with a helluva lot to say... "What's the deal with that frog puppet?" I basically ask. It's another mind-blowing, eye-opening story. :P
“This Moment” of Discovery
When it comes to Laraaji’s music career, nearly everyone has a million questions about how he got started. For most journalists, the line of questioning always ends up focusing on Brian Eno, who helped produce Laraaji’s first international album, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, in 1980. It’s a fascinating connection — but I tend to find Laraaji’s colorful “this moment” lead-up to be much more fascinating.
“I was at a pawn shop one day in Queens, and a strong guidance — an internal guidance — pointed me to swapping my guitar for the autoharp in the window…” recalls Laraaji. “[The voice] was very clear. Very warm, super-humanistic. It felt like it was a great, great, cosmic grandparent with all the tenderness, goodwill, and gentlest compassion of a teacher who can only make a suggestion, which is up to the student to follow.”
And follow it, Laraaji did. That moment happened around 1974, and guided by the desire to hold onto the feeling, Laraaji spent years developing his sonic vocabulary for the instrument.
“It was apparent to me that this guidance was taking me in a direction that I didn’t know was available to me: New Age music,” Laraaji explains. “It was deeply confirmative — in that there was some intelligence that was accompanying me on my journey in life… and it gave me a sense of security and trust about my life, which took away any anxieties I had about survival or my own existence in this Earth plane.”
“It also showed me just how groovy and funky the spirit can be,” he adds quickly, “that the spirit could actually monitor me in a pawn shop, and make a suggestion like, ‘Take that autoharp,’ and I thought, ‘How rubish!'”
In the years to follow, Laraaji earned his living busking in places like Lower Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. It was in the late 1970s that Brian Eno chanced upon him one night and left an invitation for him to join an ambient recording project. Their collaboration, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, opened doors for Laraaji to share his celestial music at consciousness expos and conferences around the country for decades to come.
With such incidents charting the course of Laraaji’s musical career, I wonder aloud if anything ever surprises him anymore. He doesn’t hesitate when he mentions he’d been caught off guard just a week prior, when a camera crew from Nike had been in his home, shooting an abbreviated version of his laughter workshop. Known around the world, Laraaji’s whole-body laughter workshops are downright yogic; they provide interactive, “therapeutically silly” opportunities for adults to release tensions and anxieties through the physical practice of play, and hence be elevated to a place of receptivity or relaxivity within a group setting.
“Laughter work is a total workout, and it takes advantage of the health benefits of laughter,” says Laraaji. “During that entire workshop, people are just really distracted from outside world concerns and heaviness, and they come into a lightness, a playfulness, a joy, and also, natural spontaneous stillness, bordering on real meditation.”
During this particular home recording session, Laraaji explains, “The audio person had never heard my music before. And so, I went into about five minutes of this celestial zither music — like real trance — and he told me afterwards that he left his body. He had gone into an expansive sense of space and time.”
Such incidents are not unheard of for Laraaji, whose numerous public performances through the years have led him to an important realization: being a musician that plays spiritual music comes with its inherent power and responsibilities.
“After a concert at the college auditorium, [someone] had gone so deep out of their bodies that a hypnotist in the room had to go over and talk this person back into their body…” Laraaji says, detailing a conference during the early ’80s. “It was the moment that inspired me to be mindful of bringing people back into the body after a concert or a workshop.”
Laraaji now closes his workshops with a song called “Happy Feet Song,” “to help people ground in the body after going out into unfamiliar abstract space and time.”
LISTEN TO THE HAPPY FEET SONG.
* AND / OR *
FINISH THE FULL INTERVIEW ON REDEFINE.
(I know it's pretty abstract; thanks for hanging in there. ^__^;)
NEW YORK, NY <-> SEATTLE, WA.
JULY 20, 2020.