INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Wall Street Journal AUGUST 21, 2015 - by Andy Beta
FROM STAND-UP COMIC TO MASTER OF TRANCE MUSIC
Discovered busking with a zither in a New York park, Laraaji is one of the leading practitioners of meditative music.
Last week, Edward Larry Gordon stood at the back of the bookstore inside the Integral Yoga Institute in the West Village. When the elevator arrived, he ushered in a few people and pushed a button.
"Up to heaven we go," he said.
It wasn't a euphemism, as the yoga studio on the sixth floor of the Integral Yoga Institute is actually called "Heaven" and was once the residence of Swami Satchidananda, the popular Indian guru who founded the institute in 1966 and was the opening speaker at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
For the Laughter Meditation workshop Mr. Gordon was teaching that evening, he was going by his spiritual title, Swami Nadabrahmananda, though to music fans he is better known as Laraaji.
His has been a distinctive career, one that started in stand-up comedy and emerged onto one of the frontiers of the music scene after being discovered in a New York park by future U2 and Coldplay producer Brian Eno. Day Of Radiance, the album he recorded with Mr. Eno in 1980, helped launch his thirty-plus-year music career.
"I was challenged to grasp what Eno was talking about as 'ambient music,'" said Laraaji, now in his early seventies. "For me, I played beautiful, trance-meditative music."
An early practitioner of what many came to call "new age," Laraaji released dozens of albums over the decades with titles like Unicorns In Paradise, Flow Goes The Universe and Chakra Balancing Music. Whatever the title, his music, usually rendered on an electrified autoharp run through effects, produced a shimmering tapestry of contemplative, blissful sound.
While that style of music has fallen out of favour, Laraaji himself has experienced a renaissance of late. Last year, a compilation of his music was released, and last month, three of his early cassette releases were reissued via a subsidiary of independent hip-hop label Stones Throw. In October, Day Of Radiance - the third in Mr. Eno's four-record "Ambient" series - will also be reissued.
This Saturday, Laraaji performs as part of MoMA PS1's Summer Warm Up series, sharing a bill with a slew of electronic-dance-music producers.
"It's not surprising to me that listeners would naturally gravitate to something as deeply resonant as Laraaji's music," said Matthew Werth, one of the Summer Warm-Up series curators. "I don't think it's about the escapist qualities of Laraaji's music and why that might appeal in an overstimulated world, but rather the possibility to understand the inner while connecting with the outer."
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., Laraaji said he wasn't from a musical family per se, "but we were a laughter-ready family that was into antics and getting one another to laugh."
He originally planned to be a chemical engineer, but after high school, a love of music led him to enroll at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Inspired by comedians like Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, Laraaji left school for New York City in 1966 to try his hand at humour. He gigged at the Bitter End and at hootenannies around town, and had some TV and film work. And in the spirit of the times, he began to investigate spirituality and meditation.
"While meditation was a unifying experience, the kind of comedy I was doing was polarizing and there was a conflict there," Laraaji said. "A future in comedy would have meant late nights in smoke-filled rooms and that was not what I wanted."
So Laraaji turned his attention back to music, playing keyboard in a band and toying with an autoharp he had found in a Queens pawnshop. He began to improvise on it as part of his daily meditation, earning money busking on the street.
He favoured the northeast corner of Washington Square Park, where he would improvise for hours on end with his eyes closed. One day in 1979 he set up, closed his eyes and began to play.
"When I opened them hours later, there was a note from Brian Eno saying he would like to talk to me about recording," Laraaji said.
For percussionist Pat Thomas, who worked on the Day Of Radiance reissue, an artist like Laraaji is rare in music. "He's never really followed any contemporary trends, so his music still sounds fresh." And while there is spiritual weight behind Laraaji's music, Mr. Thomas finds him refreshingly light.
"I think his previous career as a stand-up comedian in Greenwich Village informs the music," he said. "He takes his music seriously, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. He's incredibly funny and lighthearted."
Before his laughter workshop, Laraaji arranged yoga mats in a semicircle around the studio. "I was pleasantly surprised and humored that a new generation are open to this kind of music," he said. He tested a large gong on one side of the room and sang along with its overtones, then moved to arrange some smaller instruments.
As the workshop commenced, Laraaji had students put their hands, in succession, on their head, throat, sternum and belly, each time laughing in such a way so as to stimulate that part of the body.
"I like facilitating laughing with a timing and intimacy that is very different from comedy," he said after the workshop. "Laughter is sometimes more readily acceptable than my music. I like seeing people laugh."