In recent years, there has been much discussion about distinctions between “ambient” music and “new age” music. It is quite likely that the primary distinction between the two is a matter of just how foregrounded are spiritual matters — in the music’s conception, and in its presumed consumption.
If anyone can weigh in authoritatively on such distinctions, it is Laraaji, the longtime, holistic-minded musician whose most prominent release, 1980’s Ambient 3: Days of Radiance (Editions EG), was produced by a world-famous skeptic: ambient godfather Brian Eno. As has been well documented over the years, Eno came upon Laraaji playing his electric-enhanced zither in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. That chance encounter helped introduce Laraaji to the world, and to this day he travels widely and records and performs frequently, often as part of spiritual conferences.
Born Edward Larry Gordon in 1943, and later taking the name Laraaji as part of a spiritual awakening, he studied music at the historically black college Howard University and then moved to New York City to pursue a career in standup comedy. The impetus for this interview was the announced release of three of his archival cassette tapes by Leaving Records, dating from just before and just after Days of Radiance.
The collection is titled All in One Peace, and it contains the lush, aquatic, and deeply trippy Lotus Collage (1978), Unicorns in Paradise (1981), and Connecting with the Inner Healer Through Music (1983). They are being made available as cassettes not simply because the audience for cassettes has expanded in recent years, but because cassettes — easy to transport, inexpensive to reproduce — were the medium on which Laraaji originally sold his music when he busked in Washington Square Park.
In advance of the interview, which was spurred on by Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, with whom I share an enthusiasm for Laraaji, I asked her and several musicians I admire if they had any questions for Laraaji. To begin with, his name is pronounced as three straight, even syllables, none of them emphasized. In addition to Jardin’s question about the connection between music and healing, I asked for Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) about Laraaji’s thoughts on melancholia in music — this due to Laraaji’s profound emphasis on laughter — and for Greg Davis I asked about the origins of a specific record album, Essence Universe.
In the interview, Laraaji talks about many things, including what Washington Square Park was like back in the day, how he achieves his watery sonics, bridging the spiritual gap with the great skeptic Brian Eno, finding peace in the process of tuning the zither’s 36 strings, and his early career as a standup comic.
Marc Weidenbaum: How did this reissue collection, these three albums, come to be?
Laraaji: I think it stared with a gentleman named Douglas Mcgowan of Yoga Records who, maybe two years ago, when he was releasing an LP of mine he mentioned some people in California who might be interested, as an independent company, to release my music. Over about a year or two, eventually he connected me with Matthewdavid McQueen, in Los Angeles. Well, actually, I met David and his wife at an event that myself and a partner and music collaborator gave in Los Angeles — I think a year and a half ago, in October. And he met me there and handed me a CD and I met his wife, and maybe about a half year later he contacted me and mentioned that he was very much interested in checking out my early music on cassette, and asked if I sent him out whatever I had he would go over them and examine them and take it from there, on what to do with them. I sent him out a bunch of my old cassettes and he found three that he wanted to release immediately and he got my approval, very easy agreement, and he began to work on preparing the cassettes as close to the way they looked back when I did them myself. With Leaving Records and Stones Throw and all of our connections since I met him in Los Angeles, about a year and a half ago, have been through email and phone.
Weidenbaum: It’s a beautiful collection, and the packaging is gorgeous. I was familiar with two of the albums through YouTube, but of the three cassettes, one I had never heard of before. It’s titled Connecting with the Inner Healer Through Music —
Laraaji: For that one I had a limited release on it because it was really for the people who are familiar with that annual excursion conference that takes in Greensboro – the South Eastern Spiritual Conference. I occasionally presented workshops for music for these conferences over the years. One year, 1983, I offered a three-day workshop called “Connecting with the Inner Healer,” and I prepared music for the people in the class. This is the music that came out of that experience. So I hadn’t tried to release that set too widely, mostly for people who are familiar with my workshop programs.
Weidenbaum: It’s incredible how little mention of it there is on Google as of now, just nine search returns as of today [July 21, 2015], several of which are for the phrase but have nothing to do, actually, with your album.
Laraaji: Yes, I’m not a great big promoter. I delegate that to other qualified people. I’m surprised there’s that many mentions.
Weidenbaum: I’d imagined it must have some sort of unique provenance. Please elaborate on Connecting with the Inner Healer. I want to also talk about your music and life, but because of the timing of these re-releases, I want to focus first on these albums, especially this one, about which so little is known. Was the music recorded at the conference?
Laraaji: It’s either I did the conference and it inspired me to do the music, or at the time I was preparing to give the workshop this recording happened as part of my preparation. I don’t remember the exact sequence. It was 1983. If I knew the month that would tell me more. The conferences were usually in July. The theme of this particular conference was healing, consciousness, and transition. My music was always being invited to be shared at these conferences. Connecting with the Inner Healer was a way for me to get deeper into the therapeutic side of music. These kinds of conferences offer many different speakers around the idea of spirituality, altered life, consciousness — so, I was constantly being exposed to ideas of healing, ideas of healing, healing lifestyle. I’m being reminded that my music had healing qualities, which I wasn’t surprised by, because it grew out of my experience with meditation in the early ‘70s. It grew out of my exposure to imageries and visions of altered states of consciousness in the mid-‘70s. That started me exploring for a music experience, or musical sound, on this side of the veil that would complement what I heard in altered states. The result was through yoga, meditation, metaphysics, and other modalities. My music began to reflect an inner sense of reality that I contacted through meditation, an inner sense of constant stillness, quiet, harmony, peace and serenity, and universal oneness. These themes found their way into my musical expression, along with, still I did jazz and bop and jam-alongs when I lived in Park Slope, New York. Coffee house jams, loft music jams. We’d go through the whole gamut of music, but my electric zither at that time was surfacing and the music that I offered into all these experiences was usually this flowing ambient textural continual kind of atmospherical space music. That was around the late ’70s.
I began playing out on the sidewalks of New York. I would hear lots reports. The music would relax people and take them through all altered states. Even healers would tell me that my type of music was harmonizing deep subconscious stress patterns in listeners. When I began getting that kind of feedback, I began fine-tuning my intentions, deliberately, my music, towards the healing, therapeutic, balancing, relaxing, rest, decompression-ing effect on people.
What influenced my music toward healing. Connecting with the Inner Healer Through Music was this open response to different compliments I was getting for my music up until that moment, that it was affecting people, taking them to altered states, harmonizing them. It was relaxing people even to the extent of drawing them into visions, sort of like a vision quest, where they would see themselves doing things, and getting in touch with the feeling of doing something, and then being able to manifest it sooner or later on this side. One particular person was a woman who came to one of my concerts in a wheelchair, and after the concert I took questions and answers, and she offered, and I could see, that she couldn’t walk. When I was playing music and her eyes were closed, she actually got in touch with herself dancing. She saw herself dancing, moving. And about a month and a half later, maybe two months later, I’m in the same church, and this woman is walking toward me in the vestibule, with a man on her side, she came to me and said “You may not remember me but I’m the woman who was in the wheelchair at your concert, and I’d like to introduce you to my dance teacher.” [Laughs.] I made the connection that the music allowed her to have a vision that directed her towards a state of wellness and walking, and helped her to put things in motion to actually get to a place where she’s walking. So that is an indirect influence of music. Then, people would comment on headaches disappearing, or pains in the body disappearing, or just their whole psychological state gets decompressed through the music.
The idea of Connecting with the Inner Healer Through Music, to me, is that music works by suggestion. I spent some time developing a sense of five elements to suggest in my music with a healing influence, especially water. Once I heard that the oceans of the planet are the neutralizers of the planet — they help neutralize energy. It got me thinking “What if I could imitate or channel a feeling of ocean into my music,” then my music would have a neutralizing and balancing effect on the listener. The other four elements are, well, water is one, space, or “ether,” is another, earth, air, and fire. That’s one model. There are other models with seven elements that include wood and metal.
Weidenbaum: It’s so interesting you should mention water. I listened and re-listened to a lot of your back catalog in advance of speaking with you, and I was particularly struck by an effect on that record My Orangeness. There’s a track called “Celestial Dolphin” that has a really watery sound, and I wanted to ask how you achieved that sound.
Laraaji: With electronics. There is a certain way of using electronics to create effects and impressions and sound imagery, sound painting. That particular effect probably was produced by the use of a phase shifter, very rapid, or random technical wonder effect, that with the zither produces a liquidy aqua kind of sound.
Weidenbaum: You refer to “electronics” — what are you using these days?
Laraaji: Mostly ones for guitars, and so I might be pushing the envelope a bit when I use them. A guitar with six strings, but I’m actually using a 12-string guitar, and when I do synthesizer and zither, the zither is 36 strings. Then I use guitar effects on the zither, synthesizer, voice, and kalimba. Because they’re portable, and in the early years, many of them were battery-operated and that went along with my lifestyle of playing outdoors in the parks around the sidewalks of New York. I started out with small portable pedals: phase shifters, reverbs, flangers, delay pedals. I got into more progressive effects later on: pitch shifting, random, and looping. I’m constantly exploring new pedals to expand my sound-painting colors.
Weidenbaum: We’re touching on a lot of things I want to explore, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. So, to close the loop on the Connecting with the Inner Healer, I want to ask one more question about that: When you were preparing that music, so we can understand your early compositional process, did you improvise with a set of tools, or make notes in advance? What was your musical goal, and how did you make sure to achieve it?
Laraaji: For Inner Healer, I would have to imagine how I prepared for that. One, I prepared by selecting a key and a mode and fine-tuning the mbira, the kalimba, to concert pitch, and then exploring, just jumping wild, like chaos, with the tape recorder on and just start playing and let things come through. And in the course of 20 minutes, half an hour, my intention starts directing the music toward instinct patterns and passages. For Connecting with the Inner Healer I think I chanced upon a sound pattern that sounded like, and would support, a very trans-meditative guided experience. It was a keyboard drone and the kalimba resting on the zither so that the zither acted as a sympathetic vibration instrument to create an angelic kind of sound with the drone underneath. When I came to that passage in my exploration, I decided to isolate that passage and notate it, so that I’d know how to get to it, and then make that the base of the foundation of my guided experience. The flip side of that, called “Trans Celestial,” I once again explored and experimented till I come up with a feeling that feels like what I want to share with others, and isolate that particular mood and improvise and explore, then go back and record it and edit out the sections that achieve my intention.
Weidenbaum: What do you mean in this context by “notated”?
Laraaji: I make notes of the tuning of what I’m working with. If I’m working with the zither I’ll notate all 36 strings. Then the synthesizer, I’ll note the particular drone. Is it an organ drone? Is it a string-ensemble drone? I’ll make notes of the actual physical act of performing, because the kalimba against the zither makes different kind of music depending on where I place the kalimba on the zither. I’ll make notes of all of that. Subtle things I can forget and then try to get back into that expression and zone and not get there and wonder what am I leaving out. Little subtle things make a big difference. I just make notes, notating the actual string sequence and the equipment that I use. It’s sort of a recipe.
Weidenbaum: Is tuning 36 strings a lot of work? It sounds like a lot of work.
Laraaji: I like that question. It is work, but because of my lifestyle, it’s in harmony with my lifestyle. It gives me a chance to be still, to breathe, and tuning is designing. It’s a metaphor for my body and my life. When I tune an instrument I’m leaving an old tuning behind, and I’m tuning an instrument that has the potential of representing a whole universe of different chords and modes. And here I am feeling my way with my heart and with intuition and with guidance to create a new tuning like a painting. It has an atmosphere. It has a mood. It has an inner spirit. And when I get to a place where it’s tuned, then I’ll work with it over a week or two or a month, and it will suggest fine tweaking until I get a tuning that has a melodic content. It has energy of space. Some tunings reminds me of the desert, others remind me of the ocean, others can tug at the heart for nostalgic reasons. Other tunings remind me of ethnic dance cultures. I’m usually completed with the tuning when I strum it and my heart responds and an emotional picture comes up. That is what I play when I perform the zither. I’m actually improvising and working and hoping that mood, that vibrational space, out into audible experience. That mood for me is healing because it’s usually beautiful, it expands the heart. It has a lot of yummy emotional qualities to it. That’s what my tuning is about. It’s finding tunings that are yummy and beautiful and evoke a meaningful healing experience.
Weidenbaum: The only string instrument I play is a ukulele, and it only has four strings. I get anxious when I have to tune four strings.
Laraaji: The ukulele is healing in itself. It’s light. But you can’t play the blues with the ukulele.
Weidenbaum: I try to get close. I pluck it hard, so try to nudge it toward John Fahey territory. So, you used the word “pattern” to describe the effect of the various effects pedals.
Laraaji: There are few phase pedals on the market that I like. One would be Boss, another would be Electro Harmonix, another one was MXR. They each have their own definition of what phasing was. Some of the patterns could be very rapid. Some could be very slow and long and timeless. I would notate that as part of my notation when I’m preparing for a concert. In those years I’d use term like “long phase” or “rapid phase” or “medium phase.” Then I would notate whether the phaser were in front of, or behind, the delay and I would notate the knobs. I would mark out the position of those knobs because during the concert, it’s fun exploring and experimenting, but at times it’s a great sense of security to know that I have something definite I can look at and get to as another point of departure into another foundation.
Weidenbaum: I’m really fascinated by how those specific sorts of patterns — you mention phase, echo certainly, flange — are often associated with mind-expanding experiences. It’s almost like a one-to-one correlation between specific sorts of sounds and — well, we haven’t used the word “psychedelic” yet in this conversation, but they have an association with psychedelia. Can you talk a bit about how these sounds are representations of — about this connection between those sounds and this psychological, spiritual experience you’re describing?
Laraaji: Yes. One, you may be familiar with this: the great sages of India lived in caves because the caves had echo or reverb. Chanting in the caves helped to support or alter states of consciousness. We can find that idea being respected in your cathedrals in the west, big cavernous spaces. I found that the right reverb and the right delays help the consciousness to enter altered functioning states. That ideas of infinite space, ideas of eternal present time — these little sensations seemed to be supported by sounds that can be produced working with phasers. A rapid phase gives me a sense of energy, cells vibrating, tingling, effervescent gossamer. Long phases are like the ocean, again. The long, vast ocean — the slow waves. Another way of using the phase shifters is creating the whirlpooling, undulating effect of getting into translating the oceanic feeling to the listener, to have a neutralizing effect on the listener. I thank you for pointing that out because I don’t mention that enough, the connection between the use of these pedals and psychedelia, psychedelics.
Weidenbaum: I’m fascinated by how spiritual experience correlate with visual and sonic experiences. Listening early on to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, and then going on to ambient music and Brian Eno, there’s often this fractal or refracted imagery that then correlates. It’s like three points on a pyramid: the psychological or spiritual experience, the visual experience, and the sonic experience, and they all correlate. I’m intrigued by that connection. You remind me that churches are about places beyond our understanding of everyday time. The church represented infinity, and that’s what the echo is about. I think I am too programmatic in my thinking, and I had that backwards, in that I was just focused on the echo of the spiritual space, and not the spirituality itself. Now, I want to come back to the zither. Does a zither get better with time, or does it get worn down and worse with time?
Laraaji: I’ve gone through several zithers. I haven’t noticed them getting better with time, although I do have one that was given to me, as a gift, that is handmade by a luthier, and that looks like it would get better with age but I haven’t really hooked it up electrically and taken it out on the road yet. The others, no, I haven’t noticed they get better with age. They usually wear down, the electronics get a little iffy. The pins might slip or so. Then I move to another model. Usually Oscar Schmidt [the instrument store] has new models that are interesting. I like looking for used models and they’re anywhere from $75 on up to $400. If there were a $3000 zither, I imagine that it would be the kind that would improve with age. It’d be a very fine, crafted instrument. I haven’t found zithers that cost that much yet. It’s kind of a clunky instrument. Whatever the sound is, I tend to put it to electronics much of the time, and do sound painting through electronics. So whether the instrument gets good or bad with age, I generally can make music until the instrument is too much out to shape, and then I move to the next one. In the early years I played zither out of doors a lot, so they would get dusty and weather-beaten and I’d experiment a lot so they’d have scratches and bumps and things. Back to your question, no, I haven’t noticed that they get better like a violin or a cello, but they’re not so expensive so it’s easy to go to another one. I imagine, if I were to do an all-acoustic zither concert or recording, that depended upon the resonation and the wood choice of the instrument, and the strings quality, that I would start noticing, and become involved with the very fine acoustic qualities of the instrument. Right now that is not the priority.
Weidenbaum: I asked a few musicians I admire if they had any questions for you, and Greg Davis asked me to ask you about the album Essence Universe. Is it fair to say that was a turning point in how you used the zither? Richard Ashman, who produced the album with you, encouraged you, I’ve read, to heavily treat the zither, to push it more than you had in the past.
Laraaji: Yes, in that, for one, it was the first time I was in a studio where the engineer took me in the direction I wanted to go but took me further. Whether it was a turning point in that it did encourage me to reach into my imagination and the trance-oriented music, that was certainly pretty focused trance music that sustained with minimal voice and minimal chants. As for the term “turning point,” I think every step is an opening. I can’t say a turning point.
Weidenbaum: More, then, to what you learned from that session. I like this idea of the person pushing you further than you might have gone.
Laraaji: Yes, diving in deeper with electronics, exploring, experimenting, and trusting high-quality reverb. It could be a turning point in this respect: up to that point I was relying on electric amplification. That was my primary source for the music. In the studio I started expanding my respect for the ability of microphones to take over where electronics couldn’t capture — some of the electronics couldn’t represent the very crisp highs in my zither. Each studio performance, especially with Richard Ashman, deepened my respect for good quality microphones, and not to rule them out, because many of my concerts, I would go just line-in electric to get around issues of feedback, but I have opened up to microphones where microphones are friendly.
Weidenbaum: Were you trying to avoid feedback or was it an unwelcome element that introduced itself?
Laraaji: It’s something that I didn’t give much energy to on my own because good microphones cost money. They can cost as much as my electric zither and electronics together. I didn’t have that equipment on my own. In the studio I was exposed to — that wasn’t the first time but it was a reminder to keep my head open to their use.
Weidenbaum: I want to ask a few questions about the time during which these records were recorded. Some of them will likely lead nowhere, but I’d like to ask them. First, are you familiar with the novelist Jonathan Lethem?
Laraaji: He’s an author? No, I’m not.
Weidenbaum: I ask because he grew up in the Park Slope area around the time you were performing, and he’s a huge Brian Eno fan, and he writes a lot about social movements, and he has a novel about the communal living aspects of New York around that time. Next, you mentioned the spiritual nature of the environments, like wells and caves. Have you ever done anything with Pauline Oliveros?
Laraaji: Only a visit with her, and listened to her music maybe twice at the most. I visited with her up in New England, and then I think I attended a concert of her, somewhere.
Weidenbaum: She has a fascination with caves and with deep listening.
Laraaji: I think my exposure to her made me comfortable with using the term “deep listening.”
Weidenbaum: Inevitably I’m going to ask about Brian Eno, and I think I need to apologize a little, because it may be a burden to be asked about him whenever you’re interviewed. Your work has a strong spiritual aspect. I would go so far as to say that spirituality is the core of it. Brian Eno, on the other hand, is known as a skeptic. I saw him speak recently in San Francisco with Danny Hillis, a computer scientist. It was at an event held by the Long Now Foundation. Hillis said to Eno, in effect, “What do you believe?” And Eno replied, in essence, “I don’t believe anything.” What are conversations like between the two of you, given your spiritual beliefs and his absence of them?
Laraaji: When we are together, a lot of laughter happens. And if we’d go in the studio and jam on music together, or hang out with his choir, our communication is mostly interactive in the musical, spontaneous, creative — um, laughing — end. The idea of ideals and beliefs don’t come up. Most of them show up through the way I do music and the way I can carry myself. Yeah, so, I’ve never asked him, what does he believe. He’s never asked me either. He’s aware that I believe in laughter and I believe in beautiful poetic tone poem music. I guess that and the passion that I exhibited in Washington Square Park when he saw me play — so, I believe in being in the moment with music. What happens for myself, maybe with other musicians, too, is that we translate ourselves, we convert ourselves, from a dense physical gravity-bound body, into a weightless, expansive, timeless medium. As we play music we become music, we become weightless sounds, we become expansive impartial ocean vibrations. So, it is a trip and I believe in that. I’ve always believed in the ability of music to escape, to fly out to alternative worlds through music. I believe in the therapeutic and the beautiful, the uplifting power of music. I’m sure that comes across to him and that he doesn’t have to ask me that.
Weidenbaum: I’m remembering a time, the first time, that someone pointed out the humor in Eno’s music to me. This was in college, around 1986, I imagine. A theater group was doing a play and they asked me to help recommend music for the background audio. I put on the LP of Evening Star, a record Eno recorded with Robert Fripp, and then a member of the theater group, I think the director, found the seesawing aspect, the rhythm, funny. Come to think of it, that has an aquatic effect to it, though distinct from your own. You’ve talked about how when people heard your music they said “Fripp and Eno” to you, and you weren’t even sure what they meant at first. Did you hear humor in Eno’s music when you started to explore it, or did you experience it more on him as a person?
Laraaji: When he was working with the Omnichord, an electric instrument, I could hear a lightness, a bounciness, but as far as humor, I haven’t listened to enough of his music on that side to find the humor.
Weidenbaum: I want to pursue humor a little further. It’s well documented that before you were known for your music, you did comedy. What kind of comedy did you do? Was it social commentary? Was it slice-of-life?
Laraaji: It grew out of my college years. I worked with comedy teams or comedy trios in college, on the side, just for the fun of it. Making people laugh is one of my joys in life. When I came to New York to pursue a standup comedian career, I came inspired by the success of — Bill Cosby [laughs awkwardly]. Bill Cosby was my hero, and he was the hero of other young upstart comics. My material started out being funny stories and one-liners, but my shtick was phonetics and offbeat, kinda wacky. So I wrote material for myself that depicted me as a kind of wacky offbeat individual. This was paralleling my exploring metaphysics and consciousness and new-thought religion at the same time. My investigations into consciousness started to overtake my comedy material. It was telling me that anything that’s less than positive is — I’m setting up negative karma for myself. I drifted away from doing standup comedy and got back into music when I realized that my comedy material was taking me out of character of who I thought I was. Usually to get a laugh you put someone down or make myself look silly. I begin thinking that I was making a big sacrifice for laughter. Eventually, when I got into doing laughter workshops, that turned out to be the solution of getting people into the laughter zone without using polarizing humor, or making anyone the butt of this humor. Getting people into a relaxed state, getting them connected to their inner child and into a playful place, and showing them therapeutic laughing exercises that automatically stimulate authentic laughter. That was the big shift in my life of moving into getting what I like, being around people when they’re laughing, in a clean, hearty, healthy atmosphere.
Weidenbaum: I don’t enjoy a lot of comedy because it’s often a kind of assault, punching people. I find it funny but mean. I feel defensive, because comedy has entered a new perceived golden age, and it’s not that I don’t want to laugh. I just don’t get pleasure from the meanness, the condescension. Laughter can come from a place of joy, but that’s a different thing.
Laraaji: That’s what I’m saying. You’ve got it. I feel like I’ve been given the blessing of developing a laughter playshop that allows me to immerse myself in deep laughter without having to make that sacrifice.
Weidenbaum: I wonder if there are comedians who can walk that line.
Laraaji: Do you remember the Prairie Home Companion? I think they were pretty clean, weren’t they?
Weidenbaum: That’s a good question. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, yeah, it wasn’t mean, but it also felt that celebrating the simpleness of the people that it was about was also a kind of mocking.
Laraaji: Yeah, Sven and the immigrants.
Weidenbaum: The sound design on that show was pretty great.
Laraaji: There is a group that calls itself Laughter Yoga, that’s their general title, and they are proliferating on the planet now. It was founded by a Doctor Kataria from India and his wife. They got people out on the beach in the morning, before people went to work, in Bombay. They put them through a half hour of laughing exercise, and it works with the breath. It’s some light body yoga. It’s been around the world and people get certified.
Weidenbaum: There’s a little more about the time period I want to ask you about. Can you describe the Washington Square Park of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It could be useful to set the scene. I know what you mean because I grew up on Long Island and went to Greenwich Village a lot, bought records at Bleeker Bob’s, played frisbee with the homeless people on the park. There were no gourmet food trucks and attractive, well-paid computer programmers back then.
Laraaji: Washington Square Park was: In the northeast corner there were people from Europe playing their mandolins and their guitars. You had people strung out on unclarified substances. People selling marijuana in one corner of the park. You had people singing doo wop. There was Beatles doo wops and the guitar groups that would leap around the fountain and they’d sing the Beatles’ catalog. You had someone under the arch, maybe a cellist, or some other buskers. You had people walking their dogs, tourists coming around to see what’s up, what’s interesting. You’d see interesting people: interesting hair colors, interesting clothing, interesting moods on their face, body language. That’s what I remember. Also, in the center of the fountain when the fountain wasn’t on, you’d have a big crowd-pleasing buster team, usually two or three young men working together doing something very outlandish, very physical that would involve the audience. You’d have audience participation. There were also speakers: people who would come and just hang out and shout. They had a message. One was Dr. [John] Moore, who would talk about spirituality, and people would gather around and listen. Or you’d have another person who would debate or offer a political view, and people would gather around and listen to this person rant and rave, and then the audience would eventually chime in and contest or protest against this person, or go along with him. The village square was very much alive. There was alcohol, and unclarified substances were out of hand at times, and people would be strung out. You had guitar players off in the corners plucking away — and, oh yes, the pigeons!
Weidenbaum: Thanks. You’ve helped bring it back into focus. It was carnival-like, with tai chi, and the homeless, and musicians, and the drug use, which varied between casual and habitual. We were often offered drugs I didn’t recognize. When I got home I’d have to remember to look them up in the dictionary. Cassettes were always for sale in the park. There was a guy I met at Knitting Factory concerts who sold Jack Kerouac recordings, for example. Cassette was a way of transmitting culture. Can you talk about what cassette meant to you at that time, as a way to distribute your material?
Laraaji: Cassette was hands-on. I could get high quality blank cassettes, which were chrome or metal. Maxell made them, Sony made them, TDK made them, and I got a halfway decent recorder, I think Tascam was my favorite deck. I could sit at home and record hours of music and eventually edit out the best parts. In the beginning I duped my own, I think from recorder to recorder, until I got an increase in the numbers of orders, so I went to a place called Resolution, that was a company up in New England at the time that would do 50 to 100 at a time. In the beginning I would do my own and go to a printer and have them print up a bare, simple label and then I would do magic marker over them to give them color highlight. I’d put the labels on myself, put the j-cards in myself. I was like a cottage industry. Now that I think about it, wow how I’d never make those 90-minute cassettes one at a time?
Weidenbaum: Did you look into vinyl reproduction?
Laraaji: I didn’t do that on my own. I had the image that vinyl meant money, and that you had to have more money to plunk down. Only vinyl I did were with a financial backer or producer, and that was Day of Radiance and Essence Universe and Celestial Vibration, when of course I worked with record companies. I did cassette tapes alone. I did CD on my own, and I haven’t ventured into LPs. They’re big to carry. I played on the sidewalks of NYC, and the thought of carrying LPs didn’t dawn on me.
Weidenbaum: Washington Square Park was right near some of the best record stores on the planet. Did you sell your cassettes through any stores?
Laraaji: I did for Tower Records at a time, early in the ’80s. I think Norman’s, the record store named Norman’s, over on the East Side, carried some of my work. I would hand deliver 5 to 10 to maybe a handful of stores around the village at that time. That was the extent. Then I would sell them at health expos and conferences big time.
Weidenbaum: Speaking of conferences, I looked at your calendar, and you strike me as extremely busy.
Laraaji: Yes, but I manage to get a lot of quiet and alone time. As we speak I find myself exhibiting a little caution here, making sure I don’t double book myself. I’m busy enough to have to be concerned that I don’t make any little booboos.
Weidenbaum: Where do you live right now?
Laraaji: I live in Harlem on Lenox Avenue just below 136th Street. I’ve lived there since a year before 9/11. It’s a five-floor walk up, a nice comfortable floor-through apartment.
Weidenbaum: I didn’t realize we’d have this much time to talk, and we’re past an hour. I have a handful of questions and I may move about a bit to touch on a range of topics in our final minutes. I told a musician from England who admires your work — his name is Robin Rimbaud, and he records as Scanner — that I’d be interviewing you, and he said he wanted to know, given your emphasis on laughter and joy, what role you think melancholia has in music and creative arts.
Laraaji: I think melancholy is — you can touch upon it in tone poems and music. I go into that mood. You can go into it and release. You can go into it and go beyond it. Melancholy and nostalgia from a spiritual perspective are part of the personality of the human self, the biological-history self, but in the spirit self, the core self, the self that survives and predates reincarnation, the idea of melancholy and nostalgia are not as much a quality as something like bliss. So, the idea of melancholy in music, I would go into it as a temporal expression. I can relate to it. I can go into melancholy if I’m totally immersed in my human personal history side. Not when I bounce back into the self that’s aligned with the eternal — now, melancholy is not a real expression of my personality. I hope I didn’t confuse you with that.
Weidenbaum: No, not at all. It was respectful, and you charted out your territory and how it connects.
Weidenbaum: Again, moving to another subject, can you tell me about the Casiotone MT-70, which apparently Unicorns in Paradise was recorded on.
Laraaji: Yes, that’s a little electronic keyboard made by Casio in the ’70s.
Weidenbaum: I read up on it a little bit, and a lot of the equipment from the past has some odd little aspect to it, a feature that didn’t catch on. The MT-70 apparently had some sort of “optical barcode reader”?
Laraaji: [Laughs.] Yes, I attempted to use it once but I didn’t trouble my brain to really figure it out. It had something like a probing bar connected to a wire and you’d plug the wire into the back of the Casiotone, and you’d run the bar over music or something to transmit, to program the computer to do a musical event. I didn’t need that much. I’d prefer just to hang out and improvise with my instrument. It was there and I didn’t learn how to use it and I didn’t feel the need to use it but that’s a good point about a lot of the equipment that I’ve worked with, even synthesizers. You just find what works for you with that instrument and there’s a whole, maybe 75 percent, of an instrument that I never interact with because the sound qualities aren’t in my palette. They’re not in the direction that I want to go with sound, especially a lot of effects. Multiple effect units I’d have to reprogram to the sounds that are peaceful, gentle, or that go on a sound imagery journey. If they’re like very hard, metallic, acid-rock kind of sounds — grungy and distortion — they’re in my unit but I don’t use them. That thing with the Casio, having an aspect that I didn’t use — pretty much all the equipment that I work with, there are strange areas that I’ve never ventured into. I’ve haven’t taken the time to read the directions and I really don’t want to go there.
Weidenbaum: Do you mostly use standalone synthesizer, or do you ever use modular ones with patch cables?
Laraaji: No, standalone ones are easier for me. As of late, I’m working with keyboard controllers patched into a module. I haven’t spent the time to find the sounds that match the vision of what I’m trying to do with music.
Weidenbaum:So nothing with, say, an VCO module that you might patch into an LFO —
Laraaji: No, I haven’t spent the time to match those to the vision that I’m trying to do with music.
Weidenbaum: I’ve read you’re using an iPad. Can you talk about the iPad apps you find effective?
Laraaji: Yes. When I started out with this I wondered if apps would ever grow beyond being just a toy and amusement, and they have. The Korg M1 that I used to play with, a standalone synthesizer — the body of that instrument is now an application. I downloaded it and it’s concert-friendly and concert-ready. Also JamMan and DrumJam are two other apps that are very concert-ready. I find that, in my little examination, is that there are certain kinds of musicians who are not open to considering the use of an iPad, but in my life I have a theme: lightweight, compact, and portable. The ability to take an orchestral sound, because I went to music school and studied music for orchestra — how can I take advantage of my orchestra compositional passion in a very portable way? This iPad and the orchestral instruments of high quality allow me to augment my zither, kalimba, and voice. It gets very portable, orchestrally impacting the sound. Learning how to take my musicality and play the iPad, to me it’s the same as taking my musicality and playing the cello in that the musicality will show through, even if I take a Quaker Oatmeal box and play on it. If I can come to my authentic musicality, something in the relationship I have with that box should emit something of interest.
Weidenbaum: Can you confirm that part of what attracted you to the zither is that it had musicality and was portable? You’d previously played Fender Rhodes and other instruments that were hard to move around.
Laraaji: Yes, indeed. It’s like a miniature piano. It allowed me to really tap into my musical intention. I had a little soul-searching at one point. I said, “What is it that I’m really trying to do? Am I trying to become the best piano player?” What came to me was that I wanted to share my musical intuition and that liberated me: I didn’t have to be with a grand piano. I didn’t have to save up all my money and buy a Steinway grand piano and find an apartment to put it in and sit down and write for it. If I get in touch with my musicality and develop it, I can share it through other, more simple, more convenient ways. That called for letting go of the grand image I had of myself growing up, that I was gonna share music by being a pianist. It became less and less practical living in New York to think you’d have a grand piano in your apartment one day.
Weidenbaum: I want to aspect about a specific sonic thing. There’s a track on Lotus Collage starts with a bell.
Laraaji: Yes, probably a tingsha. That’s a standard meditation instrument, two little flying saucer discs.
Weidenbaum: It’s also on that “Celestial Dolphin” track. Your music is generally this sinuous flowing continuous thing, but those tones, which you track back to meditative practice, serve more to say that the piece has begun. Do you use them solely at the start of a piece, or have you ever employed them within a composition?
Laraaji: I have done it at times. Getting into using percussion, like chimes and bells, and — even more expansively — gongs. But what you’re saying is inviting me to explore the use of those more. The only time that I’ve used it ostentatiously was when I used the sound of a European church bell, the ringing “bong bong.” I’ve used it as a theme for something. I never thought of using the tingsha. Now and then they just add a little seasoning but your question has inspired me to be open to ways —that sound has energy, and people who do yoga know it as a call to meditation. It brings awareness to a focus. That’s the idea of those. It just kinda tweaks up the intentions.
Weidenbaum: The reason I ask is I was wondering what it’d be like to hear it in the middle of a piece. You music is so amorphous, and this sound of the meditation bell is so specific.
Laraaji: Well I’m gonna find out. I usually use it at the end of a performance to signal that it’s the end and that people can start coming back to their body and come back to normal.
Weidenbaum: Oh, yeah, it comes at the end, too. I forgot about that. One comes out of one’s trance. To close, I want to ask one last question about laughter. When I prepared for this interview I got self-conscious about laughing because I know it’s important to you. Every time I laughed during our conversation I wondered what my laugh sounded like, since laughter is so important to you. How, in your laughter sessions, do you get past a self-conscious laugh to what I guess you’d call a “true” laugh?
Laraaji: The way I do that is: help people to get into the play zone. That’s before we even get into the laughter exercises. We get into the play exercises so people drop their boundaries, drop their shells, drop their rigidity, and get into a spontaneous, playful, hang-loose spirit. That might take five to ten minutes of certain playful exercises that involve opening up the body, and before we finish those exercises, people are giggling and laughing already. They’ve given themselves permission and they’ve created space that gives them permission to laugh.
Thanks to Thomas Karabatsos for research and transcription assistance. More from Laraaji at laraaji.blogspot.com.