INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Wire DECEMBER 2013 - by Greg Tate
Brian Eno's discovery of Laraaji in 1979 busking in a New York park is a key moment in the history of ambient music. But, says Greg Tate, this encounter has obscured the true nature of the work of a sui generis African-American mystic musician.
Like any musical shaman worth his weight in human elevation, Laraaji's path has required putting some risk in the game. At one point in his life this AfricanAmerican mystic-musician-educator, still best known for a dalliance three decades ago with a certain Anglo Saxon maverick-producer-conceptualiser, was supplementing his income by playing his amplified zither in mountain region East Coast ashrams and on the streets of New York, where he once got arrested for openly making musical coin. Laraaji's otherworldly music may impress as monastic in origin, loftily produced by a man who levitates far above the madding crowd. Such presumptions belie the fact that this zitherist has lived for several decades on one of the liveliest blocks in our shared village of central Harlem. His crib is situated high above historic Lenox Avenue. There you'll find him in a three room apartment festooned with stacks of instruments and sound gear.
These striking contrasts are perfectly consistent with Laraaji's upbringing. Philadelphia born and New Jersey raised, Laraaji, or Edward Larry Gordon as was, spent his childhood dutifully practicing Chopin and Debussy etudes. Out of hours, he stealthily extended those studies by jacking into the pianocentric rock 'n' roll of Fats Domino and Little Richard. By the time he was ten, violin, voice and trombone sessions had joined this regimen. When it came time for college at the dawn of the 1960s, Laraaji's first impulse was to study chemical engineering. He opted instead to pursue composition and choir on scholarship at our mutual alma mater Howard University in Washington DC. (There's about fourteen years between us but because of yoga, clean living, uncrackable African genes, etc, Laraaji could easily be mistaken for a fellow in his mid-fifties.) Howard University remains a magnet for gifted students who tend to later become major African-American cultural figures. Laraaji shared his campus years with Stokely Carmichael, Donny Hathaway, Jessye Norman and Roberta Flack. Upon graduating, the budding symphonist decided to support his composerly ambitions by moving to Gotham and becoming a stand-up comic after the fashion of family friendly Bill Cosby. This gambit led to him securing a part in the satirical 1969 cult film Putney Swope, a super-hip send up of crass US consumerism and Black Power directed by Iron Man's dad, Robert Downey Senior. These days, the comedy routines have evolved into a sideline of Laughter Meditation Workshops during which Laraaji instructs folk in grokking how even forced laughter can become a gateway to physical, mental and spiritual health.
Along his winding road to string-based ascendance he acquired a Fender Rhodes piano, played fusion, and took part in a variety of West Village pop, country and folk gatherings singing and playing guitar. When we meet on an early October afternoon in Harlem, he reminds me that such gigs were called hootenannies back in the day, and that these open mic songfests were also where he first witnessed musicians harnessing autoharps and dulcimers.
Such went Laraaji's gypsy magpie grappling with musical fortune until one fateful day in the early '70s when he traded in a guitar and discovered a zither (his preferred olde/impish word for the entire family of autoharps and dulcimers). He then had the inspiration to electrify the thing and began devoting his free time to developing his rippling improvised music. At which point, sometime in 1974, a personal epiphany welled up from near cosmic depths. "As I was getting into the zither I had what I call a full blown paranormal hearing experience that is or was of a cosmic orchestra of brass instruments weaving this glorious textural sound. The emotional energy of that experience was like a celestial homecoming, as if all the universe was coming together in one present moment, vibrating, singing, swinging, chanting. It was the highest possible experience of eternity, of simultaneity, of the power of the present moment. It came when I was spending long hours meditating and experimenting with herb, tai chi and mind science - a way of changing your thoughts and beliefs through repeating a series of affirmations.
"That led me to the library to find out about sounds that were considered spiritual. I discovered that there were a lot of them: nada yoga, music of the spheres, the unstruck sound, the soundless sound; that inner experience of hearing music inside the self that represented a space or field bigger than what you could see in the third dimension. That shifted what I wanted to do with music because before then I was playing linearly or playing in this physical world. After that my music came to be about exploring this alternative space, this transcendental space and putting music in that space."
That music first came to wider attention with the 1980 release of Day Of Radiance, the third in a four volume series of recordings prefixed Ambient by their producer Brian Eno and which also included Harold Budd's The Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno's own Music For Airports and his eco-sonorous breakthrough On Land. The meeting of Eno and Laraaji was purely serendipitous: one summer day in 1979 the oblique strategist stumbled across our man busking with his amplified zither in New York's Washington Square Park. Eno was impressed enough to offer Laraaji a studio date on the spot. Laraaji didn't know who this character was, but by coincidence some new acquaintances spent the same night egging him towards the duet albums Eno had produced with Robert Fripp earlier in the decade, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. This synchronicity of events eventually led to Day Of Radiance and Laraaji's launch as an ambient musician. The album's five tracks, The Dance #1-3 and Meditation #1 and #2, well represent his bent for hammering, plucking and arpeggiating astral atmospheres into liminal being and enlightening cascades. The "Dance" pieces are more percussive and animated - and more giddy - than anything else in the Ambient series. Laraaji recalls lots of laughter in the studio with Eno and a request for him to plug into the board without his Echoplexes and phase shifters. As heard on the immaculate, stately and hypnotic final recording, Eno lightly applied his own harmonizer and delays in post-production. In a 2004 article for the online journal Stylus, fervent Eno analysts Matthew Weiner and Todd Burns reappraised the Ambient series. They dubbed Day Of Radiance a failure because of Eno's inability to subvert what they described as the "restless prettiness of the lapping major chords", its "somnolent drift", dismissing it as "new age... Muzak for hippies". Most damningly they claimed Day Of Radiance didn't provide music to provoke thought, unlike Eno's other productions.
At this point in our story it behooves us to mention, in case photographs haven't made the point, that Laraaji is a black dude. Extant pictures of Weiner and Burns reveal them to be not dudes of phenotypical African descent. That ethnic reveal means that in one sentence fragment they plunged into the racial divide that still prevails in US music, namely, the notion that what pale skinned improvisors and composers do with their minds, bodies and musical technologies is somehow smarter than the manipulation of same tools (and forms) by their darker brothers and sisters.
Even as Burns and Weiner retroactively dismissed Day Of Radiance as new age noodling, they inadvertently praised the record, with a damnable contorted logic, describing its resonances as "harsh", "distorted" and constituting "the least 'ignorable' moments of the Ambient series". It is these astringent qualities that make it hard to square Laraaji's music of the period - as also heard on the 1978 private press LP Celestial Vibration (released under his given name and reissued in 2010 by Soul Jazz) - with anything produced by Eno and his collaborators. Hammered and loudly trilling, nothing, dulcimers included, will generally make for good wallpaper. To ears tuned to gamelans, koras and tamburas, however, it wasn't hard, then or now, to cast Laraaji's more hyperactive playing as resonant with the hot steamy melodic background radiation found on certain streets in the global village - those located in Africa, Asia and the Middle East particularly. The sui generis quality of Laraaji's music marks him as a kindred but extroverted outlier among the way more inbred outliers of both the new age and ambient camps, one who dipped into the post-hippie, post-'60s zeitgeist for music that engaged higher consciousness but arrived at that rainbow bridge by his own circuitous route.
It's necessary to note Laraaji's subsequent association with Eno. For a period in the '90s he was managed by Opal, Eno's company, and frequently toured Europe with Budd, infinite guitar stylist Michael Brooks and Eno's brother Roger. He also recorded two albums with Roger, Bill Nelson and Kate St John as Channel Light Vessel. Laraaji and Brian Eno toured together with visual artist Russell Mills and also made a joint visit to a 1998 War Child event where he presented hand puppetry to a group of refugee kids. Now Roger Eno's All Saints label has issued three sets of Laraaji's music: the anthology Celestial Music 1978-2011; 1987's Essence/Universe, a "trance continuum" of treated zither performances; and Two Sides To Laraaji, which includes his 1995 collaboration with the Japanese dub/jam band mavens Audio Active, an outwardly more unlikely association than his 2011 mind-meld with New York psych unit Blues Control as part of the Rvng Intl label's FRKWYS series.
Laraaji's accidental forays in the ambient realm shouldn't be dismissed, but let's also recognise his alignment as an improvisor with the mystical-musical practices of such electroacoustic avant garde jazz messengers of the divine as Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Brother Ah and Phil Cohran. Let's toss in electric Miles Davis's own infernal variation on divine light and making a transcultural racket too. (Not insignificantly, Eno credits the slow continental drift of Miles's 1973 tribute to Duke Ellington, He Loved Him Madly, as motivating On Land's spaciality.)
In key African-American urban communities in the '70s a whole lotta esoteric study was going on. Hordes of musicians and non-musicians alike followed Sun Ra, John Coltrane and the Nation of Islam's investigations into African, Eastern and European mysticism (and into ancient astronauts, UFOs and LSD as well). Alice Coltrane is the most well known African-American follower of an Indian guru among, ahem, My People. Multitudes of others in New York, DC, Detroit, Chicago and California joined as well and continue to colour in the ranks of those devout communities. Alice decided her practice required abandoning the jazz world and worldly performance for decades. In the '70s Laraaji, who met Alice and later credited her harp and organ meditations for influencing his own concept of cosmic music, became part of a less doctrinaire group seeking the guidance of one Shri Brahamanda Sarasvati. That group's Ananda Ashram is located in a woodsy region of upstate New York. Laraaji told journalist Kevin Eden, "The essence of their teachings is peace and a healthy strong body and finding your happiness and honouring it. They are not such a constrictive group... Ananda Ashram is in the country and they invited me to come and be there for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. That gave me an opportunity to be in a meditative, world peace orientated place and also to listen to teachings which come down from the Vedic and also an intention of bringing or visualising East-West harmony on the planet."
Because of his connection with that sizeable North American network of meditation and yoga centres, Laraaji became one of its staple performers and cassette recording stars. Unlike Alice Coltrane, Miles and even Sun Ra, and certainly anyone else connected with Eno or the new age genre, Laraaji remained a busker and a seeker. He channeled the information, skills and confidence he'd developed learning piano, composition and voice in academia (and in R&B groups at Harlem's Apollo Theatre) into what he describes as "healing meditation experiments" with an unaware public throughout New York City's five boroughs.
When you take these factors into consideration it's apparent that time-based and site-specific musical projects such as Laraaji's are poorly served by recordings. Especially when you consider how diametrically opposed the core audiences for his live improvisational work have been. On the one hand, Laraaji and his zinging zither are scoring the inner space of lotus positioned folk in boondocks ashrams, freeing their minds of noisy urban distractions. On the other, the man has decided to test his powers of transcendence on the world's most clamorous self-occupied mob - the denizens of Gotham City.
Back in 2004, tagging any modern music new age or Muzak for hippies would have been as low as it was possible to go - even Eno went on record as dismissing new age music as "spineless". In the hypnagogic here and now, such tags no longer register as inherently anathema, uncool or unworthy of unpacking or repurposing, as the likes of Emeralds and Daniel Lopatin have proved conclusively. And in a post-Steve Jobs, post-Steve Woziak world, being anti-hippie is tantamount to being a Luddite; so US hipster label Light In The Attic is bang on trend with I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990, a new compilation that includes music by Laraaji, Gurdjieff, Steve Halpern and Greek harp devotee Gail Laughton.
While many current electronic musicians might seem but a hyperlink of separation from Laraaji, it's notable that most of them have developed their work to a lofty ethereal pitch in their own lo- or hi-tech bat caves for the concert hall, the club and the limited vinyl or CD-R edition. After speaking with Laraaji, you realise his sonic art has never been calibrated to approximate any specific soundworld vision enterprise we might name or label but his own - and whatever ineffable molecular magical energies transform human dreamtime into cinematic and kinesthetic multi-sensory event. To paraphrase Rakim, Laraaji seems more "powered by the light that comes from solar" than any micro-genre pretensions. Even up to his adopted name.
About that name, which Burns and Weiner also poured scorn on. Once upon a time there was an epic place of learning in Harlem known as the Tree of Life Bookstore. Laraaji used to donate music to psychic fairs held there. One day two Very Deep Brothers approached him and said they'd discovered a new name for him based on deciphering his past life. At Laraaji's insistence they all met in Central Park for the unveiling. At which point our Man from Planet Zither told them he liked the sound but because of his own studies in numerology and Egyptology insisted their spelling be changed to one made up of only seven letters. If I understand him correctly, three of those became letter As, because A represents the triangle, a presumed universal symbol frequently placed on NASA craft, and also allows for an embrace of heliocentricity and the sun god Ra (shades of the gone but never to be forgotten Ramm-El-Zee). Later, at the Ananada Asram he gave himself a fuller name, Laraaji Nadadannda, which plays on the Vedic meaning of nada (roughly: healing, higher consciousness sound vibrations) and its co-efficient, the Spanish for nothingness, all allowing the lapsed comic a nominal pun to delight in and which speaks to his own aspirations for those realms where, as Joseph Jarman once pointed out, silent gongs sound soundlessly.
Laraaji credits the '70s minimalism of Terry Riley and Steven Halpern with helping him realise certain strains of music actually had an ethos not unlike his own - not to mention a wider audience and currency. True to the era, when spiritualised minimalist projects leapt from university sound labs to Whole Earth lifestyles, Laraaji recalls that Riley's music reached him under the new age rubric. Already versed in yoga and mediation, Larraji says Riley and Halpern "lured me because they were putting out recordings that seemed to flow like I felt". He reflects that John Coltrane's music impacted on him in ways akin to his paranormal fantasias. Seeing Sun Ra's Arkestra in the same period was a "rotorooter flushing out of my musical paradigm: Sun Ra liberated me from a very fixed and rigid sense of what music had to be". He doesn't think he'll ever recreate his deep hearing 1974 epiphany for others, however, because "it's not music you hear with your ear - its a vibrational experience. But remembering that vision totally inspires the music that I do play."
Current extensions of his still gamefaced musical play now include doing more with the bass strings of the zither, a result of jamming with Audio Active in venues stacked with subwoofers. He's also brought synthesizers back into the fold and is really bringing it all back home now by deploying his iPad's Orchestra app. With both Audio Active and Blues Control he deploys a kind of freestyle rapping that draws on his wise ass if deadpan take on spiritual enlightenment.
In Laraaji's lexicon, linear is equivalent with the rendering of melodic information in a score, while a more vertical parabola is what he attains on zither where all the notes are vibrating at the same time. He laughs recalling folk who have given him grandiose compliments over the years such as "your music sounds bigger than life", before acknowledging "comments like those gave me a signal that I was achieving what I was after: music that was bigger than the linear lived life".