Laraaji Wants To Enlighten You
Conversation with a New Age legend
Nobody warned me it was going to take two trains and a bus to achieve enlightenment. Yet that seemingly innocuous six-mile distance turned frustrating and circuitous, a nearly two-hour journey between Queens and Brooklyn no doubt familiar to New York straphangers who’ve attempted to travel between the two boroughs via mass transit.
Nevertheless, I persisted, drawn by the prospect of seeing two of the city’s most enduring experimental performers in a rare live collaboration made possible by Ambient Church. Born Edward Larry Gordon, the man known as Laraaji Nadabrahmananda stood in front of the altar inside Bushwick’s United Methodist Parish. A legend in new age and ambient music circles whose work nearly four decades ago with Brian Eno produced the classic Day Of Radiance, the current Harlemite was joined on his right by bassist Bill Laswell, whose own discography boasts Herbie Hancock’s hip hop crossover Future Shock.
Speaking to Laraaji a couple weeks ahead of this event, he offered insight into the process behind their collaboration. “The live setting requires our getting together to talk over keys, the keys in which we will work, and what areas I can explore that he’s most open to being in the space with,” he said. “It will be improvisation, with some pre-meditative conversation.”
Laraaji seemed to lead, bringing forth melodies and mantras with the aid of thumb piano, zither, and other obscure instruments and tools. Laswell generally took ownership of the low end, his electric bass exploring the possibilities presented by his partner’s comparatively brighter tones. For well over an hour, the duo filled the tabernacle with harmonious sound and transfixed the silent audience, a rare feat when the modern concert-going experience typically requires dodging seas of glowing iPhones and rude, restless chatter.
Whether live or on record, Laraaji’s music compels listeners to stop and take stock of their environment, their emotional state, and their lives. In keeping with his spiritual quest, transcendence sits in the forefront of his catalog, much of which exists largely in limited quantities self-released privately. In the 2010s, labels like Soul Jazz and the Stones Throw affiliated Leaving Records have taken up the cause of reissuing these obscure gems, including the 1978 rarity Celestial Vibration and 1984’s home-recorded Om Namah Shivaya.
Fresh off the back-to-back release of two full-length projects of brand new material, Bring On The Sun and Sun Gong, both for All Saints Records, Laraaji will soon see the re-release of arguably his most accessible material via the esteemed Numero Group. Vision Songs, Volume 1 collects largely vocal, devotional pop songs recorded in the 1980s. With the reissue due out next month, he discusses the newfound appeal of his improvisational 20th century music to millennial ears, as well as how his recording process over the years has more or less stayed the same.
You have so much going on. To what do you attribute this renewed interest in your prior work?
The people who are buying LPs and who are streaming, a large number of them are in the age range that I was in when I was recording this music. I was exploring, living in Park Slope and Manhattan, in a transitional lifestyle. The energy of that music was also represented in my investigation of spirituality, of spiritual paths and consciousness teachings at that time. I feel like the energy of the music of that period is addressing the spiritual needs of today.
It still continues to be new, especially when featuring the zither work. The zither music is very extemporaneous, flowing, fluid, ethereal. In other words, therapeutic, especially in an age where there’s high information overload. With the amount of information that we all have access in this day and age, the zither music seems to invite the listener to flow free of congestion. It’s also an uplifting, exhilarating, spiritual sound.
Numero Group is about to re-release Vision Songs, Volume One. This is different from some of the material you’ve been releasing in that this is largely vocal work. I’m curious as to how all this came about.
The music itself was recorded in the early ’80s during a time when I was traveling a lot on the East Coast and California at spiritual centers, meditation centers, [and] yoga centers. Being in these for sometimes a week, two weeks, sometimes three weeks, I would have the convenience of recording equipment. Out of that period, a lot of high end and sometimes lo-fi recordings happened. I compiled the best of those recordings into what I called “vision songs” in that period into a cassette. I distributed maybe a hundred [or] two hundred copies during that time and eventually turned it into a CD. I never went mainstream with it or distributed it worldwide.
[Numero’s] Douglas McGowan got ahold of a copy of Vision Songs and was wowed by it and asked if he could distribute it. I’m surprised he found it inviting to release. But I gave him the go-ahead and he got it bumped up to a really good listening quality. Every time I put it on and listen to it, I’m amazed at how strong and infectious the energy still is with that recording. I used a simply Yamaha or Casio keyboard at the time, but I was really into the spirit and it shows.
It reflects an ear for pop that people may not expect from you. There’s hooks with this.
I’ve given copies of Vision Songs to friends over the years. They’ve come back to me and said, “I’ve worn my copy out. Can I get another?” [laughs] I had not tried to push it to become a major international release item.
How does it feel to have your music shared with a wider global audience, from the reissues to newer releases like Bring On The Sun and Sun Gong?
When I’m asked that question, it seems like I’m taking this all in stride very comfortably. If it would have happened when I was 30, I would probably be jumping up and down shouting. But now, it’s happening 30 years after I thought it would happen. There’s a calmness about it, and also a security knowing that the music does have a real following that wasn’t aware of the music will get to be aware of it because of the bigger distribution push.
Listening to Bring On The Sun, I’m interested in knowing how your creative process now compares to how you worked in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s not that much different, in that I prepare the instrument the zither in special tunings. I become aware of my effects and get familiar with my effects pedals. Then when I go into the studio, I will just attune, get in touch with my intention, and let spontaneity happen. Spontaneity will take all this information, these tunings, songs that are wafting in my head these bits and pieces, my familiarity with effects, and will just unfold it in the studio. Then [I’ll] go back over all the material and edit out the highlights, many of which are surprises and inventions that happen far above what I was planning to have happen.
In the studio, I flow through all of this territory. Some of the territory will stop me and say, let’s take a tangent here and go off in that direction. When I feel like I’ve explored this surprising intervention, this new direction, I’ll come back and explore another direction. Then when the whole recording session is over with, I’ll listen to what has happened and make note of where to enter and where to exit, certain highlights along the recording session. That’s the same way I approached Vision Songs and my early material, to record without a very specific sense of where I wanted to go. I just know I wanted the music to be beautiful, exciting, adventurous.
That’s one of the mysteries of improvisation for those who aren’t creators. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this idea of the planning of improvisation.
Matter of fact, I consider in addition to the musical instruments and the effects, that I’m also playing my preparation. Whatever I do earlier in the day, whether it’s sitting and contemplating the principle of fluid, or contemplating the five elements, or contemplating the ocean, these are preparing me with sensibilities. Even before a performance, I’ll get a chance to do some yoga preparation for some positive self-talk. That’ll prepare me to go onstage. Those things will play me, actually.
I’ll be very mindful that we’re in a particular age where people are a little uptight, strung out, and stressed out, confused about what’s going on on the world stage. I might, before performing, dive into a meditation upon peace and release from stress just those principles. Somehow when I’m doing my music improvisation, the intention of having my music be supportive of people having subconscious stress releases during my performance will happen. I will not plan exactly what I’m going to do to make it happen, but while I’m performing through improvisation that intention will find its way into what I’m doing.
For those who come to see you perform live, what kind of mindset do you recommend or suggest that they might come to this with? How should they prepare to come to a Laraaji concert?
If they know how to relax their energy system, either some deep breathing exercises, optimally would be to do some energy work. Yoga classes are some of my favorite performance areas. At the end of the yoga class when they’ve done all the releasing of the breath and the muscle tensions and the mental stress, they’re in a place called savasana or corpse pose. That corpse pose, when people are lying on their backs and are totally receptive and their boundaries are down, when they can get to that space then I can meet them with a very deep listening experiential music.
People coming in off the street generally don’t have the time or convenience to do a full yoga class before sitting down in a concert venue and listen to music. But they can do deep breathing, they can wear comfortable fitting clothes. If they wanna do psychedelics, that’s up to them. [laughs] It doesn’t hurt! Blindfolds are one thing that’s very effective. If a person chooses to have a comfortable blindfold, that can enhance their inner journey with listening. And lying down, if they’re comfortable with it, to sit with a mat or a blanket and lie down with blindfolds on, that is a very high receptivity state for the kind of music that I do.