Q&A: New Age Musician Laraaji
“People would go to altered states where they would forget the problems and the concerns of their ordinary life.”
Laraaji, born Edward Larry Gordon, is a new age musician based in New York City. Since the 1970s, he has recorded dozens of new age and ambient albums, most of which were self-released and distributed. Perhaps the most well-known of these albums is his 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, Ambient: 3 Day of Radiance. Over the past few years a number of Laraaji’s recordings that were once either self-distributed or only found in wellness retreats, yoga studios or new age shops, have seen high quality re-releases from boutique record labels like Stones Throw, Soul Jazz Records, and The Numero Group, along with numerous new recordings.
Born just outside of Philadelphia, Laraaji grew up in close proximity to the Baptist Gospel Church, where he first connected with choir music. From an early age he, with the encouragement of his mother and teachers, learned to play various instruments starting with the fife and then moving to the violin, piano and trombone. After high school, Laraaji moved to Washington, D.C. to study music theory and composition at Howard University and then moved to New York City to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian and actor.
A spiritual awakening caused Laraaji to drift away from comedy and back towards music. However, fun still maintained a powerful presence in his life. To this day, in his mid 70s, he continues to lead laughter meditation workshops. Laraaji spoke to Ruskeat Tytöt over the phone while he was in-between shows in Los Angeles, California, before his show in G Livelab, Helsinki, on March 5.
What kind of music do you like to listen to on a daily basis?
The thing I most listen to is a sound vibration going on inside my head called Nadam, the inner cosmic sound stream. It’s a continual sound. Sometimes it is a piercing ringing sound, sometimes it sounds like crickets or an ocean surf. Sometimes it sounds like a full-blown orchestra.
Now, the other music I listen to when I do a lot of 5Rhythms dancing are music tracks that are selected by the instructor which are world music, danceable music, music with beats and rhythms. I like to do Zydeco and Cajun dancing. I like to hear other new age and ambient artists.
What is the difference between New Age and Ambient?
What has been described as ambient seems to cover a wider palette of sound anywhere from noise, to high energy, to quiet and still, to immersive. Ambient music to me is an immersive sound event. New Age can be therapeutic healing relating to yoga and meditation. Healing therapeutic effects on the listener’s body, mind and emotions. New age, to me, represents more of an intention to support the listeners well-beingness on several levels. Ambient is not so invested in the healing benefits but more providing a stimulating new alternative listening experience.
When did you first start practicing meditation?
1971 or 1972 is when I began searching for a clearer understanding of how to meditate bygoing to different teachers, different meditation centers and reading different books. It was reading a book by Richard Hiddleman, a western yoga teacher, on meditation and yoga that demystified the meditation practice for me enough that it allowed me to begin experimenting with sitting still in a chair for hours. Learning how to relax the breath and how to still the thinking mind. Using breath, using affirmations and using sheer will to practice learning how to sit still for only 21 minutes. After 21 minutes the mind gives up, I can sit for hours.
What I learned from early meditation was that emotional and psychological problems belonged to the identification which I give to myself. And when I took off all of the titles that have ever been used for me, it helped my meditation to go to deeper. Because I was no longer distracted by the things that belonged to titles like anger, bitterness, sadness and worry. The meditation practice involved taking titles off, deep breathing, sometimes yoga to relax the body and now I can even use laughter to relax the body.
At one point in your career you worked as a stand up comedian, what your style of comedy was like and what caused you to move away comedy?
It was offbeat, absurd stand up comedy. The material had to do with setting me up to look like a person who was offbeat or wild. Sometimes it was shared comedy, a collaboration. Which was a cross between mime and ridiculous situational comedy with two people on stage setting up premise and exploring. A cross between slapstick and absurd.
Through meditation and through exploration metaphysics and mind science, I became aware the style of comedy I was doing was a negative consciousness or naïve consciousness. And my understanding is that the kind of comedy I was doing would sooner or later backfire in producing more negative results in my life. So I stopped doing negative based comedy and focused more on music until the early 1980s when I found out I still could tap into laughter by doing workshops instead of doing comedy.
I would love to hear about your laughter workshops? Is it possible for you to demonstrate this practice?
A medical doctor from India, Dr. Madan Kataria, started laughter yoga. He and his wife actually documented the health benefits of laughter and made a list of them. They range anywhere from boosting the immune system to stimulating the flow of hormones through the head, releasing tension and stress, to massaging the abdominal organs, releasing stale and stagnate air from the lungs and stimulating the thyroid gland in the throat. So as a medicine chest laughter, conscious laughter, allows a participant to access the healing properties of laughter.
I was at a pawn shop in New York, to exchange my guitar for money. But I saw an autoharp in the window, and was inspired to swap my guitar for it instead. I went along with the mystical guidance, and with exploring and experimenting with it.
Where do you laugh from? Is it from the abdomen or from the chest?
Well the diaphragm is used to inhale and exhale. A deeper yoga practice of extending the diaphragm and the abdomen to inhale, you compress it to exhale. So it is the stomach the chest, all the way up to the throat. In the actual practice of the laughter you are standing up while you are inhaling and bringing your body down to rest your hands on your knees as you exhale. Your eyes are rolled up and your tongue is extended. A mix between a yoga practice and a laughing practice.
One particular event was a person who came to my concert in a wheelchair, admitted that after the concert she couldn’t walk. But during the concert she had a vision of herself dancing and so a month or two later I met the same person who was walking, and she introduced her dancing teacher to me.
Did all of this happen around the same time you were given the name Laraaji?
The use of three As in uppercase present to the eye the appearance of three equilateral triangles. Which for me represent an offering of peaceful intentions. I understand that spacecrafts that are sent out into deep space include the sign of a triangle somewhere on the surface of the craft because it could be easily interpreted in any non-terrestrial intelligent language as a sign of peace.
It came around 1978 or 1979 after years of sharing this experimental sound at yoga events, meditation places and spiritual centers in New York. In one spiritual center, two of the men there expressed that my music offered them an experience and they wanted to resonate with the experience. They suggested a name for myself. We had a ritual of meeting in Central Park and they reviled the name to me and I modify it a bit and excepted it. LARAAJI. It represents an honoring of the sun as a divine being. The Egyptian sound for a Sun god is Ra. LA-RAAJI is a soft evolution from Larry Gordon, Edward Larry Gordon, my birth name.
You’re known for playing the autoharp. What drew you to it?
I first saw it during the late 60s in New York. When I was doing stand comedy and exploring working as a comedian, in the night clubs, hootnannies and folk festivals, we would share the stage with folk musicians. Some of those musicians would be bluegrass bands and those would have guitar, bass, violins, drum and autoharp. I noticed the autoharp and how it was used very delicately. It looked like an instrument that would have a bigger future.
Five years later I was at a pawn shop in New York, to exchange my guitar for money. But I saw an autoharp in the window, and was inspired to swap my guitar for it instead. I went along with the mystical guidance, and with exploring and experimenting with it. The idea to electrify it was a vision. I went to a store in New York with my autoharp to see if there was some kind of amplification, and discovered that there was an actual autoharp pickup available for purchase. So I bought it, screwed it on to my instrument and took off. Exploration and experimentation was a large subject for me at the time.
Can you talk about your time playing in different parks and neighborhoods in New York City?
Around the same time as I received my name, I began busking. I didn’t know it was called busking until I was interviewed by English people later on in my life, but I was playing on the sidewalks of Park Slope, Brooklyn, which is more of a bohemian, laid back, flower child, hippy community. Eventually I played on Washington Square Park in New York City, The Central Park Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, and in Greenwich Village. Those were the areas where I had the most receptivity and I could comfortably busk without interfering with the flow of public life. There were NYU students, tourists, artists, one of which was Brian Eno, who offered me a chance to collaborate on his Ambient series as a result of hearing me in Washington Square Park one night.
The color orange is symbolic of transformation and of spiritual service.
Were the people you played for talking about the healing quality of your music? I read that someone described it as a trance-like state.
That’s very much what it was like. People would go to altered states where they would forget the problems and the concerns of their ordinary life. Or they would feel like dropping into meditation or Tai Chi. It would suggest a different flow of the breath. They would leave the breath of anxiety and settle more into the breath of peace and relaxation.
One particular event was a person who came to my concert in a wheelchair, admitted that after the concert she couldn’t walk. But during the concert she had a vision of herself dancing and so a month or two later I met the same person who was walking, and she introduced her dancing teacher to me. This was in Florida. So the music had helped her contact an image of herself, healed and walking, and inspired her to pursue that image.
You have strong connection with the color orange, you always wear it on you. Where did you discover it?
I started by playing on the sidewalks of New York City in the mid 70s. There was the Hare Krishna Temple which featured a restaurant where you could eat all you could for five dollars. Street musicians used to converge on the Hare Krishna restaurant for lunch and for dinner. Hare Krishna as you may know wear a lot of saffron or orange clothing. At the time I was curious about the color orange and wanted to wear more of it without being clear why I had that urge. So somewhere in the late 70s I started experimenting wearing the color orange, not making the connection.
Until a spiritual mentor years later made a connection for me between a transformative sound hearing experience during meditation, and my desire to wear the color orange. It was an expression of the transformative power of the sun. The color orange is symbolic of transformation and of spiritual service.
A lot of your work seems to revolve around the motif of water, and you even refer to the Oceans as the “neutralizers of the world”. What does that mean? Can you discuss the use of other elements in your work?
Yes. Oceanic energy. Ocean is flowing, fluid, not frozen, not fixed, not rigid, supple, feminine. The bodies of water of the earth suggest to those who focus on it, sail on it or swim in it or even bath in it, or those that cross the oceans, that they are able to have a shift from thinking of the earth as having a rigid fixed energy form. The oceans offer the elements of fluidity, openness and buoyancy into the earth’s make up.
But then for example, my album Bringing on the Sun is acknowledging the fire and the passion of the sun and there is an earthliness in there that I talk about in my song “Reborn in Virginia”. When I talk about connecting to the earth, it is an element of therapy. Connecting to water, fire, earth, space (which is either), and air. These are the five recognized elements. There are a few others in different cultures like wood and metal. But to explore the representation of these elements in my music makes my music a therapeutic listening experience. The listener can tune into the elements of water in the body. The air element in their body make up. The etheric, the earth and the fire element in the body.
Becoming aware of these elements through sound, through suggestion, through yoga, helps to support what we call holistic medicine. The wholeness of one’s being. So that one isn’t just in the fire or just in earth, one has fluidity, spaciousness and air.
Words: Vejay Nair
Photos: Nathan Perkel / Record Culture Magazine