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Acid Seven: Oh, this is the answer! - An Interview with Laraaji

Laraaji is a multi-instrumentalist, perhaps best known for his work with Brian Eno on the 1980 Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. This record, however, is just one of the many creative endeavors for which he has prayed; he describes his meeting with Eno as a spiritual request that he was granted. It's no coincidence that the two crossed paths. Long before their meeting, he was already on a spiritual -- and musical -- path.


A lifelong musician, Laraaji started playing the piano at the age of ten. Influenced by his favorite players such as Fats Domino, he learned to play, later writing original choral and doo-wop pieces. He attended Howard University in the mid-1960s, where he studied composition and piano. Here, he met and worked alongside musicians such as Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Timmons, and Jessye Norman. 


During this time, Laraaji discovered a fondness for laughter. After his studies, he moved to New York and pursued the standup circuit. For a time he was a compere at the Apollo Theater, and performed in talent shows and hootenannies. These pursuits gave him more confidence in working with jazz and R&B -- both with piano and vocal performance. In the late 1960s, he pursued work in acting, appearing in off-Broadway theater productions and the 1969 cult classic Putney Swope.

Laraaji was intentionally guided by intuition. The early 1970s saw him working at the Aquarius Coffee Shop and playing the Fender Rhodes with Winds of Change. Some time later, he had a fabled experience with the inner voice. Intending to sell in his guitar at a pawn shop, he felt a strong intuition to instead trade it for a zither (or auto harp) in the window. Soon after, he affixed an electric pickup to the instrument, and began experimenting with the meditative qualities his invention produced.


1978 LP press (left), 1985 cassette reissue (right)


He took to the street, zither in tow, and performed using wooden hammers, guitar picks, chopsticks and rubber bands. The amplified sound passed through a phase shifter. His busking years had begun. Laraaji's first record, the 1978 Celestial Vibrations, gives us a look into the sounds that filled the streets and parks in which he played. These performances opened the door to new opportunities, and a new name.


"I wasn't born as Edward Larry Gordon Jr., but the body was," he recounts. He was invited to the Tree of Life bookstore, where he donated music to play in the store. The owners of the store called him aside to tell him that they intuitively felt his past life as being one concerned with consciousness and music. Thus, they proposed a name: Laraji. Adding another A, Laraaji found his name: one with the numerological value of 7, and one containing 3 triangles when printed in uppercase.


The same zither sounds, made possible by an openness to the inner voice, had found him both a new name and a new producer. Fortuitous, but not coincidental. Of course, the story doesn't end here. Laraaji has never stopped developing -- musically and spiritually. After Day of Radiance, Laraaji continued busking, producing tapes to sell (the contents of which have resurfaced in recent years), doing his own public access show, and performing for yoga and meditation groups. His spirituality deepened.


He was led to Ananda Ashram in Harriman, New York. Here, he spent time in meditation and received Vedic teachings from gurus such as Shri Brahmanada Sarasvati and Swami Satchidanand. As his spiritual and musical lives became more unified, he continued recording solo and collaborative work alongside conducting laughter meditation workshops. 


In the last decade, he has collaborated with a new generation of like-minded musicians, including Blues Control (FRKWYS Vol. 8). Much of his early work, thought lost to time, has been reissued (Vision Songs, Vol. 1). He is in the middle of a release schedule for a piano trilogy (Sun Piano is the first) -- a return to his first musical instrument.


In the middle of all of this, he is kind enough to give me an hour of his time.



I've caught a few of your recent live sets, like the one with Afro Roots, and I dig the setup. It kind of goes back to your work with Celestrana. Are those the same puppets?

Yes. They might've had mouth surgery since then. I found a person who could fix them, because my fingernail poked through the mouth at one point. They've been around a while.



I know you're most accustomed to live performance when there are people around. How does streaming feel for you?

Streaming feels good, because generally in my performances I've been working with closed eyes more. I go further that way, and I find that it takes the audience further. Also, it allows me to reference a field -- that I'm playing into a field rather than to individual people. So the idea of streaming isolation is practically the same with eyes closed and going into the imaging of field, or playing into a field. Some of my audience is easier lying down with blindfolds on anyhow. They're going into their imagination with eyes closed. At home, I'm able to move around with less concern of how visually it looks -- stepping over wires and such. If I'm doing visual, I'm very concerned about my position with the camera, so I am with eyes open to make sure that I'm on camera. If I'm doing just audio, it's less complicated.



Is it similar to public access?

Yes, in the sense that it's spontaneous, improvisational, free-flow, and I feel that I'm at liberty to come from wherever I am on my thoughts, thinking, and whoever I am -- evolving as a musician, artist, or yogi.


You have been a comedian, and part of what comes with that is being comfortable with improvising. Does that impact the way that you perform? Is it important to the formula?

Yes, if I know the particular population that I'm performing for, it will influence which side of the yoga meditation I will address. If it's a general audience, I'll take it into consideration -- those who might say "Gee, I don't meditate. I can't relate to that." I do perform with a yoga community in mind, or a general audience in mind. If there are children present, I'll get more into the playful energy. Even Dr. Love will show up depending on who I think will benefit. If I think it's going to be a foreign audience, I make it more visual, or music that doesn't need to be translated verbally. 


These questions are invoking some new answers. Generally when I'm asked to do a program, I'll take into consideration where it's going to be aired or streamed -- local or foreign, general audience, meditative audience, young audience -- if it's going to be live or aired a month or so from now. What I get to do when I'm streaming these days is tap into my dream vision of representing a one-person orchestra. I've always liked orchestral music. The experiment was to see how fluid, mellifluous, and spontaneous an orchestra could seem to perform if it was managed by one person. Shifting tonalities, moods, and rhythms the way that a cinematic score would. A live orchestra could not be as spontaneous as I think I could represent an impression of an orchestra under the direction of a spontaneous conductor.



Playing off of yourself. That brings up something I've been somewhat fixated on, which is your use of puppets. It's inexplicably therapeutic to me -- representing the inner voice. Where did this practice come from?

I was guided really spontaneously to accompany a friend to a shopping mall in Florida when I was visiting there. She wanted to give me an opportunity to get out of the apartment. I thought this was a bright idea of relief. When we got to the mall, she said, "I've got to do some things. You can meet me back at the car in a half-hour or so." So without thinking, I went on my own direction to this toy store across the mall. I went into the store without asking questions, walked down a few aisles, turned left, and another left, and looked down in a bin. There were these two puppets. I picked them up, looked at them, and without thinking went to the cash register and paid for them. I thought gee, I'm gonna have fun with these people. As I hung out with them, I started referencing this inner space that I'd really never thought about giving voice to. It's almost like a baby coming into the world -- having all these things to say, but all it can do is blurt out sounds [laughs].


And so Dr. Love and Dr. Peace were tools, instruments, and friends for referencing this inner, non-linear field, and knowing that the field was everywhere, and how to represent that with a language that was more of a vibrational space language -- a language that's really caressing and referencing a unified field. It's not communicating linearly, it's almost saying, "I know we're one, we're here, and I can't really speak to you without speaking through you, because we're sharing the same field." So it was an experiment exploring just how much I could involve myself in sharing this energy -- a subconscious or inner space, this transcendental awareness field. As I began experiencing with it before audiences of children and adults, it resulted in humor. One reason for this was not that it was only nonsense, but it was allowing the mental space of the listener to relax from having to process linear information. In that release from linear information, the release automatically translates into lightness or laughter.


I was always impressed with how well this was received, and even requested -- even at Celestrana tapings in NYC. If I showed up without Dr. Love, the executive producer would say, "What? Dr. Love is not here?" [Laughs] I was so surprised that adults were having as much fun as I was having. Once in San Francisco, Dr. Love made an appearance. One gentleman in the audience afterwards says, "That was weak. That was nowhere." [Laughs] I thought maybe there was a general... well, it was in San Francisco.



Too cool for it. 

Yeah. But generally women and children have no difficulty. It overrides the rational linear thinking mind, or evades that. In my experiment, I found that it is therapeutic, both for me and the listener. It allows me to transmit an awareness or an information that really I can't do with words. Although when I translate for Dr. Love, it's a rough attempt, because when I'm using words I'm drawing the listener out of the space is referencing. But it does result in some wisdom that's usable, and results in a lightness, a laughter, and a playfulness. My interaction with Dr. Love is like you interacting with your inner space. There's a non-linear experience. My rapport with Dr. Love onstage or on camera is a source of light and humor for people. Dr. Love has gotten more physical, playful interaction.



That resonates with me.

The language actually frees up my mind. I can say more. [Laughs] I can say more through that language. 



It's a very expressive language. You can tell the feeling of what's spoken through the intonation. So when you're having a conversation with the inner voice, with Dr. Love, it genuinely does feel different than a conversation without the intention set of talking to an 'inner voice,' talking to oneself, et cetera.

I feel validated that you feel to touch on this subject during this call, with Dr. Love. Often I forget that other adults appreciate Dr. Love. [Laughs] I think that I have so much fun, but do I have the right to impose this on other adults? [Laughs]



Speaking only from my perception, I think that it's special. Some of the spoken work that you do hits a similar key. The sense of a childlike enjoyment. For instance, I've been going back to your performance with Arji -- 12345678. You incorporate "This Little Light Of Mine." There's a really sentimental and emotional resonance to this on a feeling level. Then of course there's the spiritual aspect of the song's roots in American gospel. It feels like the whole thing -- the story of the song's intention -- the same kind of storytelling I get from Dr. Love. What part do you think storytelling plays in your work?

More and more, I'm reminded of the power of  storytelling to shift awareness. There's even a trance aspect to storytelling, even if it's just "once upon a time." You shift the focus and sense of environment for the listener or participant. Imagination can go further that way. I leave the realm of logic for imagination, and it allows me to communicate differently -- I could say more or deeper. It definitely works when I'm in an English-speaking environment. It's like sharing a journey. It was on the backburner and it's coming forward, my interest of incorporating more of a storytelling format in my work -- telling stories, guiding the imagination into an alternate sense of present time.


'This Little Light Of Mine' is my addressing collectively the planet or this civilization moving towards lightness, or moving into the light body, as opposed to the dense corporeal body. The song is an opportunity to support anyone listening in their journeys to lighten up their life, or to identify themselves in terms of light and sound. Lightness in terms of being void of density, void of heaviness, void of resistance -- being in the light body or being the light body. People who practice meditation or still sitting move into the non-linear space and experience themselves free from the outer body. There's a lightness of emotionality and heart. So that song is an opportunity to plug light in whatever form or whatever project the listener or audience is currently in in their life.



It's definitely felt. Your most recent work is ongoing -- a piano trilogy.

Yes. Sun Piano, Moon Piano, and Through Luminous Eyes. My final appearance as a committed pianist or piano musician. I've always been attracted to piano whenever I could find one, however leisurely or casually. If it's in someone's home and they ask if I'd like to play, I always say yes. At a venue, if there's a piano available during free time, I'll play it. I have an affinity for tinkering with pianos. My mother realized this very young and supported my interest. I don't know how she obtained the piano, but she put an upright piano in the house and paid for piano lessons. So I developed a committed relationship with the piano around the age of ten.


I had piano players like Liberace, Earl Gardener, Fats Domino, Oscar Peterson, Andre Previn, that would inspire me to reach for jazz, rock and roll -- passionate expression on the keyboard. So when getting to Howard University, it was advised that I take piano as a major, and theory and composition as a minor to strengthen my piano work. Piano as the basis of composition. So that's what happened at Howard, strengthening my piano.



It feels like a return. You're coming back to the first instrument. do you feel that this solo piano work resonates differently than your previous work? Does the piano express differently to you than the auto harp or synthesizer?

I think of the auto harp as a liberated piano. I'm hammering it. The piano allows me to shift chords and harmonics so I have access to the full twelve tones. In the auto harp I stay in one tuning. So it's like a unified field, a harmonic field that I can explore. It's portable, meaning that I can control the quality of the output of the instrument in going to remote places, for instance playing on the back porch of somebody's country home where I couldn't take a piano.


I can keep it fine-tuned, and explore different tunings with the instrument, even when I get into frequencies. There's concert pitch, A440, and I can shape that and shift that mood with the zither. I've been experimenting with A432 to see if it provides a more therapeutic listening experience. With a piano, that's not so convenient. I asked a few piano tuners around, and they say it's a heck of a journey to shift a piano down. It takes several tunings. So I decided I'd never ask a venue to do that for my piano concert [laughs].


But I can do that with a digital piano -- Yamaha makes a good digital piano, so I can alter the tuning that way. But I do like physical interaction with a piano, sitting on a piano bench and interacting with it. It's a familiar interaction. With the zither, I can set it up on a table, my lap, or a snare drum stand. I can drive the instrument through multiple effects. With the piano, I'm used to liking the rich sound. The piano has longer bass strings, and it's something I can't reach with an auto harp -- getting the rich bottom. Zither strings are not even a yard long, and with a piano, they're something like six feet. There's a rich, therapeutic, round bottom sound that I can get to on the piano. I can also be aggressive with the piano without it going out of tune. With the auto harp, I lose tunings and break strings. I haven't broken a string on the piano.


It's more melodic on the piano, too. I delve into melodic themes.



This trilogy was recorded in a church?

Yes, Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. One of my favorite places on the planet, mood wise. It was empty in isolation, except for the sound crew and producer, who traveled from England to be there. Two days of recording, from about 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening. Then I left it up to the engineers and producers to mix down and get to the nitty gritty. That process -- the decision was that there was enough material to release three albums.



And this was all improvised?

Yes. Even "Shenandoah." Every time I play "Shenandoah," one of my favorite American chant folk songs, I approach it with an improvisational attitude. Theme and improvisation.



I have a more spiritual question. As I'm learning more about you, moments stick out to me. For instance, you gave a guitar and received the auto harp, which is key to your work. Similarly, you donated your music and received the name Laraaji. Do you see these as coincidences, or things that were supposed to happen?

The latter. I feel along my earlier spiritual path, I made general requests to be guided, to be shown. Sometimes I was not sure what questions to ask, but I was on a vision quest for vision, and for clarification of the vision. My involvements with certain spiritual practices, like affirmations and positive thinking, allowed me to fine-tune my quest into actual verbalized requests or prayers. They led to these -- they weren't coincidences. When they happened, I would say, "Oh, this is the answer!"


For instance, when I use affirmations to attract the right producer, without knowing producers or where to go to find producers. When Brian Eno showed up on the scene, I knew, "Okay, this is the right producer." I would not have known how to go out and look for Brian Eno.


And when the name happened, Laraaji, it felt like the unknown becoming known. The guiding forces benefiting my life becoming visible by extending themselves from the hidden world out to the physical world: here's a name for you. So I'm seeing the face of the unknown. They don't feel like coincidences, I feel like it's being orchestrated.



I'm glad to know that, because they seem like concrete examples of being revealed to yourself.

That's a good word for it. I'm trusting revelations. Even today, there was a concentrated project to assemble the instruments that would be in my one-person orchestra. And I got it pretty much together, excluding the piano, before this interesting time on the planet. This prepared me to be able to live stream from my home on several different projects. It's always been my interest to compose for an orchestra. It's generally what drove me. At some point I realized, in coming to New York, that when you write for an orchestra, you've got to assemble a large amount of people together, pay them, and do rehearsals. I don't know if that's a practical vision. But the synthesizers and the zithers have allowed me to go into my orchestral vision and represent it through solo performance. The years I spent developing the sound of the electric zither allowed me to come up with a unique orchestral sound.


In the pawn shop, when I was about to pawn the guitar, I had a very clear guiding voice -- full of love, full of wisdom -- suggesting that I swap the guitar for the auto harp in the window. That moment, I wouldn't say I was startled. I was impressed that I was receptive to hearing, and even considering following, such an unusual contact [laughs].


But I was curious where it could go. You know, it's like you're walking down the street and a voice says, "Turn left here and duck in the alley." And it's not the voice of Little Richard. [Laughs] And I'm saying, "What would happen if I followed that voice?" And you duck in the alley and see that there's a hidden passageway to another world. You find it because you dared to dared to follow that voice. That other world is full of inspiration and full of guidance, and full of higher technological wisdom that benefits my life. And so the experiment in that store was one of seeing where my life would go if I followed something as mystical as this voice.


So out of that experience, I was empowered to trust more and more that inner voice. I consider my life, even at this moment, to be a life of the road not taken -- the road that my linear rational mind would not have allowed me to take. Also the name Laraaji was revealed by some spiritual community members back in the late 70s, when they suggested that I might consider a new name. They had done some research to come up with a suggestion. When I received that thought from them, there was a little anxiety, thinking uh oh. What if they reveal the name to me and I don't like it, and I embarrass them, or if I accept the new name, would it mean I'm starting on a journey of creating new names in the future?


But I decided to go with the flow of it, and I suggested we meet in Central Park the next day to reveal the name. And when they revealed it, it was right on. It was three syllables, and it related to the sun. Little did they know that I was having this cosmic romance with the sun, and I was looking for a new name. I knew it would be three syllables, and have something to do with the sun. So when it was revealed to me, there was another a-ha moment that I was being tracked by a mysterious wisdom. I just made one change in the name so that there would be three A's, so when spelling the name in uppercase, there would be a visible three triangles. This way it also involved the numerological value of seven -- one of the ongoing themes in my life.


So the name turned out to be all positive. There was a little bit of a challenge in getting people who knew me by my other name to accept this name, like my mother and my brothers, but it turned out to be a good spiritual service name. And a unique name, too, that gets mispronounced sometimes: laungerette, lingerie... [laughs].


So these moments come up and there's a big a-ha, like I have not been forgotten. The inner voice, or the inner guidance is still here, watching and waiting for an opportunity to zap me with guidance.



I think it's a good lesson for those who aren't as attuned to forms of meditation or to inwardness.

Yes, that inwardness in meditation prepared me to notice this and to trust this. I think the word notice. Meditation is about quieting the outer gaze and outer focus, and inwardness is to be attentive inwardly. To notice things that I wouldn't notice in my focus on the external.



I've got here a Casio MT-70.

How about that! Did you get it online?



Yes, after hearing Vision Songs. I'm curious to hear how you got started using yours.

I guess in the late 70s, I was exploring portable synthesizers. My Casio I got new. I was attracted to the drum sounds and the access to ten different sounds immediately. Other synthesizers were less accessible and required you to fiddle around. The MT70 was lightweight and battery operated, had multiple sounds, and had a playful sounding drum machine. I was using it on tours, and I was having fun with it, which is the important part of it. As opposed to a more serious, dedicated synthesizer, I noticed that with Casio I was halfway between the toy world and the serious world. I could have fun with it, and that's what translated into the music I was doing -- I was actually having fun with this instrument.


Since the release of Vision Songs, I thought uh-oh. If I'm going to commit to sharing this music, I better find out how to get more copies of this MT70 in case this one breaks down. I found they were available for various prices. $100, or a little more. Some of them were a bit grungy.



While we're on the subject of Vision Songs, I wanted to ask: there's a track that begins in the fadeout of "Today Is This Magic Quality" -- it begins Good morning, sunshine! Do you know what I'm talking about?

Yes, when I mixed that down, I fed it out on an incoming song. That's one of my compositional personalities -- to provide a little shift at the end, as if life goes on. I don't recall what that was part of. Maybe I can invent a new song!



It's also good as is, too! I wait in anticipation for it. I just had to ask.

I like that part too. It's still part of the song -- the energy of the song. 



So you have new MT70s. Are you planning to record in the same vein as Vision Songs in the future?

I continuously do explore new material, or themes to work with. There's a holding position with Numero Group for a Vision Songs II. I haven't spent much time on the MT70 lately, but this conversation that we're having is whetting my appetite for jumping on the MT70. Just playing with it and a vocal mic, I generate so many songs -- the way that the instrument draws me to it. It may be on the horizon to produce a song-based album as the next project, once the piano-based project is finally done. I'm thinking the next project -- vocal-based, intuition based.


I've gotten so much positive feedback from folks around the world listening to Vision Songs. When that song was headed for the trash-heap, someone found the cassette in a used record store, and approached me about if I'd mind having it released. I was impressed with how well it was reproduced. It captured qualities that I didn't know were there -- the bass, and the full range of the frequencies. So, as it was released, I was impressed with how well it was received generally -- around the planet. Serving to inspire, or even in your words, bringing a little lightness into your life.


So, I'm being reminded that the lightness of the Casio enters into the equation of generating more new songs. I could pull it out and start working with it again. My last trip to Denver, I took it with me and I performed with it. The chords in the Roland synthesizer, as heavy-duty as they are, I didn't get into the same playful, joyful release that I got into with the MT70.



That's what I find too. It's made for that sort of thing.

Your inner child can accompany you on the jam.



It's similar to what I find with Dr. Love. You access the same space, and it's a tool to get there.

Thank you, thank you Patrick. All affirmative.



Absolutely. I don't want to take up much more of your time.

I do want to thank you for the Suzanne Ciani interview that I checked out.



You're very welcome. I see a lot of parallels between you two. Have you ever met?

I met her in Texas two years ago. Arji and I were there to do a laughter workshop. Suzanne was given this large space to do her quadrophonic performance. We met backstage, but we didn't get into real talking that could lead to any kind of collaboration. But we're aware of each other's physical presence. I was impressed with her years ago when she came out with her album. I was in awe of her having to put her foot down on the New Age platform. So she was an inspiration to more alternative music.



I think both of you, to me, occupy that space in affirming different-ness. But it's a different-ness that is closer to the heart, I think.

Your interview allowed me to understand she was working with a special synthesizer -- a Buchla. I was impressed, but I felt a little anxiety about if it ever broke. That's a tricky place to be -- to be dependent upon an instrument for your iconic image. It's like having a million dollar cello, and if anything happens to it, there it goes!



Well, luckily she had the piano. And similar to you, when her early work was released and reissued, I think that contributed to her return to the Buchla -- as opposed to the piano. That's another commonality! I've got one more thing: it's silly, but I wanted to share a YouTube comment with you.

I've seen this guy perform some of the most serene music in the most chaotic places such as Washington Square Park in NYC in the 70s and 80s. Then I've seen him show up at Brooklyn parties and totally motivate people who never thought of themselves as musicians to jam with him and create wild funky music as a group. If music is a spiritual path then surely Laraaji is one of its saints!

Wow, I can relate to that! I'm very receptive to having heard that.

Keep up with Laraaji's performances and releases on Twitter -- there is so much in the works, including the forthcoming second piano record, Moon Piano. Pre-order here.


My sincere thanks to Laraaji for the interview, and to Kevin S. Eden and Howlin' Wuelf for portions paraphrased in the biography section.


Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow them on Twitter. 

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