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. Read more »