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The Guardian JULY 8, 2014 - by Ben Beaumont-Thomas
LARAAJI: THE BRIAN ENO OF LAUGHTER
Laraaji wanted to be a rich, famous comic like Richard Pryor or Bill Cosby. He ended up teaching strangers how to laugh for the sake of their souls. Ben Beaumont-Thomas joins a class.
Fifty people in a London cafe are laughing their guts out - and their lungs, throats and heads, each in turn, as part of a meditation workshop. We're having our thyroids, pituitary glands and abdomens vibrated by different kinds of laughing, to relax us and, theoretically, improve our health.
Our session leader is Laraaji, a sprite of a man who for decades has been blending music, meditation and comedy, and has just finished a European tour jamming with LA psychedelicist Sun Araw. "These laughter exercises do something to the energy system akin to what yoga does," he says. "They relax the breath, the thought processes, the body, and leave the person in a place that's equal to the final posture in yoga classes: shavasana, or deep meditative relaxation."
We're made to lie on the ground and think of the feeling of being loved, and then turn that first into a humming tone and then a giggle; we chant, make eye contact, and build up to a long, improvised laugh. The room rings with a machine-gun hee-hee here, a Santa belly chortle there, and by the end we're literally rolling on the floor.
Laraaji - born Edward Larry Gordon - is seventy, but looks around forty-five, and dresses in a burst of orange usually associated with Hare Krishnas or dangerous inmates. "It's a ritual, a signal, and it cues me in to sun, fire, the urgency of the now," he says of the hue. "It's a sunset on the old way of knowing self and sunrise on the new way of knowing self."
As you can tell, he's a bit of a hippy, but it wasn't always that way. As a young man in the early 1960s he trained in music composition at Howard University in Washington DC, specialising in piano, but standup comedy also became an outlet: "It helped to balance the playing field when I was around bullies, and I liked the power it seemed to have to get someone to relax and become this soft, open, warmhearted person." He moved to New York, "with the intention of following in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, hopefully amass a small fortune, get a great apartment, buy a grand piano, plonk myself down and write all the beautiful music in the world".
He found comedy could unite rooms of people at a time of racial friction: "If I could look across the audience and see there were other faces laughing at the same time, I didn't feel this racial divide." But he found himself disgusted at his reliance on "polarising humour that makes someone look stupid or intellectually incapable". Laughter as meditation, on the other hand, which he'd heard about at a New York ashram, was harmless - laughter for the sake of it.
It helped him as a musician, too. "Laughter has given me more composure as a performing artist," he explains, "because it opens the breath and allows me to relax." Come the 1970s, he was playing in various groups, often with a heavy Fender Rhodes piano. Looking for a more portable instrument, he electrified an autoharp, a pint-sized instrument often heard in bluegrass, and began spending as much as a week tuning its strings. He then improvised with it on the bustling streets of New York. "The tunings would evoke an emotional atmosphere - sometimes they would conjure up a sense of being in a vast desert, or oceanic feelings, or infinite space," he says. "With the right musical intervention we can suddenly feel like we're under a waterfall, or on a mountaintop, or in a cave in England. A good time for me to have been playing on the sidewalks was during rush hour in New York, people scurrying to get home, or wherever. And people in business suits would stop, sit cross-legged on the sidewalk and just go into a trance. Their breath was relaxed, their sense of urgency to get somewhere else was relaxed, and when I stopped playing there would be no sound, just people staring at me in this trance state." His music features blissful repetition that prefigures Balearic dance music, with waves of cascading chimes energised by a sly funkiness. "There's a ready response from the listener, whether they have two beers in their hand or they're sitting in the lotus position. He-heee!" Another laugh smacks me like a sunbeam.
Quelled again, he explains that his playing is an attempt to evoke the "cosmic music" he began hearing after long periods of meditation. "It sounds like multiple layers of brass instruments weaving this glorious textural harmonic continuum," he says, "but this is music that cannot be played. It's an unstruck sound that has no ending or beginning. An Indian tradition called that music anahata nadam, the pulsation of cosmic space."
Wait - he could actually hear this unplayed music in his head? "I can't use the past tense - I am hearing it," he laughs. He adds, in gnomic poetry: "There is no 'was' - there's only the continuous present moment." In other mouths this might sound like insufferable acid-fried philosophy, but Laraaji's breezy, honest tone makes it feel like hard-won wisdom.
One of the people who walked past him in New York was Brian Eno, who was beginning to explore ambient sound. He dropped his phone number at Laraaji's feet, inviting him to work in his studio, and it led to Laraaji's best-known album, Day Of Radiance. It seems like a remarkably serendipitous meeting, but Laraaji disagrees, saying that in the previous weeks he'd been visualising his goal of finding the right producer during periods of meditation. "I didn't know who it would be but I left that up to the universe. So when Brian Eno appeared, this was in the flow and the equation, and a demonstration of my prayer."
The '80s and '90s led to more albums of what is generally dubbed "new age", a term Laraaji takes as not being the sound of whales making love but rather anything "now and new". He therefore performs with iPad apps, and reflects on the information overload of the digital age. "The new age [today] is about the multiple streams of information that are represented in cyberspace, so music of this age would be cacophonous, and represent the multiple layers at the same time. My music is evolving towards that."
And he still gets up and laughs each morning. "Meditation somehow got the image of being arduous, solemn, moving away from fun and joy," he says. "Laughter turns that around - it is the shortest distance between two people." He's right - it may not have brought me closer to God or enlightenment, but as I bustle out on a wave of dopamine, I certainly feel closer to my fellow smiling citizens.