“Seriously playful” and bright as sunshine in his signature orange attire, celestial music maker Laraaji is, in a word, divine. With upwards of 50 albums released, his meditative and healing music – primarily performed on an electric zither – has been an everlasting source of joy for sonic explorers and bliss seekers. Classically trained in music at Howard University in Washington, DC, the multi-instrumentalist found his way to New York City in the 1970s, giving street performances and selling his cosmic ethereal soundscapes on cassette. One day music producer Brian Eno tapped him in Washington Square Park and their first collaboration became Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, considered a core album in the genre.
How the pioneering Laraaji really got here, though, is through Eastern philosophy and Vedanta, a body of spiritual works from India, the Yoga Sutras, and Mind Science. He’s a deep seer and listener at heart, a visionary whose meditation practice resulted in a “yogic hearing experience” in 1974, one that changed everything for him musically.
Philadelphia-born and now Harlem-based, Laraaji often is on the road performing or leading laughter-as-meditation workshops with his partner, Arji OceAnanda. He was in Bern, Switzerland when we spoke – 11pm his time, but as Laraaji will tell you, past present and future roll as one and the same. Never more true than when you’re listening to his heavenly hypnotic jam sessions!
Eternity Or Bust: A Short Film About Laraaji
RG: I've been preparing for you, I think, since 1984 when I first heard your music. I am so thankful and grateful that you agreed to talk to me!
L: Thank you!
RG: I just saw your Skype tagline and it says, 'Feel who you truly are at this instant.' So who are you truly at this instant, Laraaji?
L: This vast, timeless, consciousness, continuum exploring itself, celebrating its presence. This is beyond the conversation that you and I as these personal temporary human beings are having. It's the common Source, permeating all timeless consciousness continuum. Even simpler is, 'I Am.'
RG: What does 'I Am' mean for you?
L: It means no birth, no death, all pervading unity, bliss. Maybe bliss would be the essence of it, timeless bliss that trickles down, pours down and runs through the temporary personal private life I call Laraaji. Trickles through the individualization of this vast consciousness into this personal consciousness I'm calling Laraaji at this time. It's non-dual, once again, using words to answer your question is the attempt to point to your self as consciousness, to feel this non-separate presence in the midst of this conversation taking place on Skype.
RG: It's interesting with words, because of 'In the beginning was the Word,' but I'm wondering in your case if 'In the beginning' was music?
L: Ahhh!! 'In the beginning' is the sound wave, the sound current, and various spiritual or religious persuasions have different names for this. 'In this beginning' is this cosmic vibration that can be called ‘the Word,’ although the term ‘the Word’ can be misleading to those who are not familiar with the idea that sound vibration is the personality of this cosmic field, and this cosmic field, or this cosmic 'I Am" presence is a vibrational presence that registers through the cerebral cortex as a pulsation. It's not heard so much by the physical ears because it's a nonlinear and unstruck sound, but it is registering through the cerebral cortex as a pulsation that's loosely called ‘the Word,’ or Cosmic Sound Current, or in the Hindu consciousness movement, ‘Nadam,’ the sound vibration, the great inner sound current.
‘The Word’ as it registers in the Bible, as I understand it, was a loose translation of this sound vibration. 'In the beginning was the Word,' and the word is nonlinear. The sound vibration is nonlinear. It has no beginning and no ending, which can mean that there is no past or future. So 'In the beginning,' there is no 'was' the beginning, it's is, 'In the beginning' is this sound vibration. I accept a more conscious statement of this that shows up in the Bible. Past and future are the same, we're in constant present time, and this is the underlying truth that gets revealed through our meditation, through something called yoga pose, or Savasana in yoga, or Yoga Nidra. For an hour and 15 minutes an individual relaxes the breath, the body, the muscles, and the thought process so that one arrives at a place of just lying on the floor without moving with relaxed breathing and is in receptivity to natural meditation and to discerning this sound vibration called Nadam. One can even entertain the idea that yoga is for the purpose of preparing the individual for direct listening, hearing and perception of this inner sound current in the Bible called ‘the Word.’
RG: As you know I first heard your music in 1984 with your album, ‘Om Namah Shivaya,’ and it was on cassette back then. It really spoke to me. I think I bought three of them and still have one that's shrink wrapped.
L: Three cassettes, whoa!!
RG: Because I wanted to make sure I was always going to have it.
L: Did you buy it before you understood what was on it?
RG: No, I heard it and it spoke to me very deeply. I don't even know where I bought them. Remember when cassettes were king?
L: I do indeed! And they're coming back for the young listeners, if you can believe it. Your copy could be a collectors item.
RG: There are so many things I want to talk to you about – from music, to spirituality, to your history. I think for a lot of people those things are compartmentalized but for you it's all one – there really isn't an intersection or a separation.
L: Yes, I can participate in past present and future but I can do it more now with a consciousness of the underlying truth that I'm participating in, what could be called an illusion of linear time. But I can perform in it and play in it and can honor the question that's being asked of me.
RG: An obvious first question is, What does the inside of your head look like?!
L: HaHaHa!! Yeah, that's a good question! Wonder and awe, awesome and wonder, with that there is this, which we are calling creation, existence, consciousness, movement, energy, awareness. There's a constant 'Ah' in this thing we call life. Call it desire or compellingness to celebrate through sound, through dance, through movement, through music, through spoken word, through celebration, through service. This constant oozingness to celebrate this beautiful awesome thing, and it peaked for me in the 1970s when I heard the most beautiful music, that I am hearing it. Hearing music that opened my consciousness to a very more cosmic or transcendental form of the Word. A listening experience that I best describe as multiple brass instruments weaving this timeless textural cacophonous orchestral symphony, and the music brought my emotional awareness to a place of agreeing that eternity is now, all of the universe is occurring right now, there is no division, everything is simultaneous.
This music brought me to a state of awe and consciousness recognition just how beautiful this timeless, this being, this creation is. This is what goes on inside me now on a daily basis, when I decide to drop into still meditation and just be in an expanded place – a recognition of this timelessness beyond the individual buildings, bodies and planets. Every day is an opportunity to just dive into some new or familiar way of expressing or giving vent or giving release to this bliss, this appreciation, this gratitude, for being selected as a witness to this awesome level of creation, beauty, the gift of consciousness.
RG: What was the original event that happened? What was happening in your head when you had this epiphany, for lack of a better word?
L: What is happening is my decision to devote a significant amount of daily time to sincere meditation, sitting for hours, usually from 12 midnight until 5 in the morning. But opening with Mind Science affirmation, opening with deep breathing, and riding on the practice of having developed the ability to sit still for at least 21 minutes to observe the shift in consciousness and in mind. When I can sort of force feed the mind into stillness, and the mind or the thought process when coerced into stillness takes in a different version of time, space, and the universe. At that time, I was practicing being still in this place for hours, 3, 4, 5 hours, and I was convinced this place was a valid place because I was and am receiving clarity about all the things that I grew up with regarding the Bible and Bible teachings and Bible sayings that were mystical to me. Things like, 'I and the Father are one,' or 'The kingdom is close at hand.'
This immersion in this meditative state allowed me to feel that the titles I was using to describe myself weren't describing me, in that all the anxieties, worries and concerns that I thought were mine didn't belong to me. They belonged to the titles. I called them the ribbons, the ribbons that we all wear, that are used to keep the inner gift of light and consciousness, wrapped up in traditional forms, in forms that we're proud of, whether they're titles of professional achievements or titles of relationships in which we feel love and compassion. All these titles are like ribbons, and during this meditation experience of hearing this music I could say that the ribbons had been in quantum bulk released, and I am being left as an awareness of boundless size, weightless transparency, feeling that I'm not only listening to music but I am that field that is vibrating in this cacophonous cosmically musical way. And of course at that time, which is this time, I am being inspired so deeply that my music shifts. My music direction shifts big time, my sense of social desire shifts big time. And my understanding of this presence we are calling God shifts big time as well. That I am no longer an outsider looking for this mystical presence, that this mystical presence is where I am and it is open enough and willing enough to speak through me in such an intimate way, that I am now this intimate witness, and this is what shifts my sense of music.
My sense of music production now is about addressing an image of the listener as being right now consciously in reception of their own eternal identity. This is what the 1974 hearing, yogic hearing experience, did for me and is doing for me. It's treating me like a personal channel of the infinite creative source. Of course, in order to accept this as a personal experience, I had to have done some serious work of cleaning up my self-image so that I could understand and feel that I'm someone who was worthy of this kind of deep, intimate personal communion within this infinite presence.
RG: What were the circumstances around that? You were just meditating?
L: I had been researching and experimenting with what I could best understand was meditation. The teaching or the writing that gave me the final sense of ability to practice meditation was a little book on Bantam Press written by Richard Hittleman. It was called something to the effect of, Little Book of Yoga Meditation. Reading this book demystified the meditation experience for me, enough so that I could dive in and experiment with it without having to travel to India. I would say that up to that point, the closest thing I could say I had to a guru was the images that were given to me in Bible school and my Baptist church, and the Christian faith called Jesus the Christ. The image I would receive when I was young was of this man who was accomplishing something that was awesome. I remember as a child saying, 'Gosh, I want to do that, too.' I must admit that Jesus was my first model and Roy Rogers was my second!
RG: I love that!
L: That image of Jesus Christ, of wanting to do that, too. It wasn't enough for me to stand around and listen to stories of Jesus and say 'That's awesome, that's my Lord and Savior.' I was too curious and too inquisitive. I wanted to know, well how did he do that? Why was he given the opportunity to have that intimate of a communion with the divine creative core? And that kept me open to exploring whatever would address that quest and what really began to address the quest deeply was Eastern philosophy and Vedanta, or the yogic meditative teachings that were written in India. It's a body of spiritual works called Vedanta, and the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras. And then you have Mind Science, or metaphysical movement, as it was revealed to me and is being revealed to me here in the West. That is simply, basically that if you can conceive it, you can achieve it. When I heard this it opened the door and I said, 'Ah, that's what I can do. I want to jet up on that same experience that Jesus had and is having, and here are my tools that I can work with, using the laws of consciousness to create and to realize this awesome level of consciousness. So practicing led me into yoga, led me into Tai Chi Chuan, led me into creative affirmations, all allowing me to peel away the layers and to undo the ribbons of my personal identity.
RG: From a time standpoint, as we're defining time for the purposes of this conversation, did all of that happen before 1974, and then you had this moment while you were meditating? How long had you been meditating before you had this moment?
L: About two years after I had found my own meditation experience. I would admit that one of the elements of my meditation practice upon sitting was to mentally and consciously take off all titles that had ever been used for me to describe me or to honor me. Any and every title that could be used for me, I would take off mentally at the beginning of the meditation sitting. And this would leave me in a state of realizing that these things that I thought were mine didn't belong to me, they belonged to the titles. This would leave me in a place of receptivity to a transcendental flow of insight and awareness. So at that time, about the second year of meditation when I had developed the ability to sit for long hours, that was one of the conditions that prepared me to be receptive to this hearing experience. Also at that time I had been loosely attending, I was living in Queens, New York, and it was convenient for me to attend the meditation events of a teacher named Sri Chinmoy.
RG: I remember him.
L: As best as I can describe, he was a music guru. He honored music and attracted people closer to the practice of honoring music as a valid practice along the spiritual path. I recall at that time that Sri Chinmoy's presence was in my heart and in my consciousness at the time. Also Rajneesh was in my consciousness at the time, Krishnamurti, Baba Ram Dass, and Shivananda. These were a few of the teachers that were fortifying my respect for the transcendental nature of the self. So all of this was going on and is going on, that is allowing me to be open and I could say receptive, if not vulnerable, to this spontaneous hearing. Spontaneous heightened meditative experience. What was going on was a deepened practice of nightly meditation.
RG: When you say nightly meditation, you were sitting in meditation all night long, basically.
L: Yes, and it was nighttime because I was in a family situation and that was when the house was quiet. I was the only one downstairs in the living room and sitting in an easy chair. And I could do this practice without any distraction. Without interrupting anyone else's flow of life.
RG: I'd like to bring the music into the conversation. For people who don't know you, you are considered one of the ambient music pioneers. Online I was reading descriptions about the music you've been making and it’s called 'euphoric, transcendental, blissful, celestial, meditative, a sunny positivity, a healing force, and the flow of the universe.'
L: I can relate to that!
RG: How did you get to the place of creating this kind of music in conjunction with what was in your head?
L: Probably part of that is obvious, that having this cacophonous cosmic sound hearing experience really validated my sense that I am not the body and that the ribbons and the titles that are used for me are not my final diagnosis, not my final identity. This hearing experience, just like a child who wants to emulate their parents, I wanted to emulate this sound hearing experience for others. So it was like a flash, spontaneous decision that this is why I've been training as a musician, and this is what I've been reaching for but didn't know how to identify before. That is, the use of sound to guide or direct consciousness into itself, into its higher nature, so it can enjoy this thing called existence and life from a place of not feeling like a victim of the world but as an empowered witness.
The music that I heard, or am hearing, is changing my sense of what I have to do as a musician. That one, I cannot play that music for an audience or a listener. I had to let go of thinking that I'm going to be the doer of this experience. But instead I had to find a way to have this experience, to own it, to let it live in me and let it well up until it spills over into the way I produce and create music so that that experience is informing the kind of music I reach for on this side of the listening veil. The listener, whether they're yogically experienced or have meditation, the listener would hear the music and feel their own transcendental self responding from within themselves.
For many listeners it may be a new experience to have themselves responding to music from a place within their selves that they never really acknowledged before. You could call it like the birth of the child, birth of the Christ consciousness, through a sound immersion. Here I'm reminded to say that I did get baptized at the age of 12 as in alignment with my awe of Jesus the Christ, and wanting to be like Jesus and understanding that Jesus was baptized at the age of 12. And it's this baptizing experience that translated itself into the desire to use sound to baptize consciousness so that it could have an inner transcendental experience.
RG: When you were 12, you were already playing music?
L: Yes, my mother had supported my music interest at the time by allowing me to practice violin, piano and later trombone.
RG: It was evident early on that you were a multi-instrumentalist.
RG: Where did that come from? Did you know? You must have known even earlier than age 12.
L: The school system in Perth Amboy, New Jersey was very up on supporting music interest in the student population. So at the age of 9, I was introduced to a simple black plastic instrument called the fife, or the tonette. And then 4th grade, the students were given the opportunity to choose the cornet, the violin, or I forget the third, the clarinet, the cornet or the violin. On this particular day the music teachers went around from class to class demonstrating the instruments and when I came close to the violin, something within me just resonated as if from a previous life saying, 'Yes! That's what I want to study!' As if I wanted to continue something I had started in a previous lifetime. So in 5th grade I began studies of the violin and maybe a year after that I coupled it with the study of the piano. At the age of 10 I began serious and sincere music studies in the school system of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
RG: What kind of music were you listening to at the time? What was being played around your home?
L: A lot of pop radio, at that time. I was listening to jazz, listening to a violinist named Florian ZaBach. You can still find him on YouTube. I can't remember in what sequence I began listening to the works of Earl Gardner, Oscar Peterson, and also R&B. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers were a big model at the time, they were a young teenage group making it big. Curtis Mayfield.
RG: Loved Curtis Mayfield!
L: Yeah! He was a big influence.
RG: There was a ton of music happening in Philadelphia.
L: Yes, that was a big R&B scene at that time. I can't remember the names, who was big on the scene there, but I was very tuned into it. I was listening to music for dance parties, going to parties where we danced to the music. I'm not remembering if Motown was really happening at that time when I was 10, But there was a lot of music coming up from New Orleans, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry.
L: And then you had the classic music that, I mean, Liberace, he was accessible on the television. And his brother George. And I was listening to gospel music and Negro spirituals. The school system introduced me to Negro spirituals, the choir in high school and grade school. And the music, eventually, of Broadway. That's the music backdrop of the choirs, of the orchestra, the school's orchestra. We did a lot of Broadway music.
RG: At some point in the midst of this you decide that you are going to actively study music and study it in college.
L: Well it’s funny, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. When I got to high school I was applying to all of these technical colleges for their bulletins.
RG: I never knew that about you.
L: Yeah! I was into science, and I had taken a course in high school that was geared toward preparing me for a technical academic career. Somewhere in the second year I was in a conversation with these two professional men, they were salesmen at the Robert Hall clothing store in New Jersey where I worked. One night when business was slow they began talking to me about life and things and I mentioned my interest in college They said, 'Have you ever heard of Howard University? It has a great music school!’ And something in me perked up. So I investigated Howard and sure enough they had a college of fine arts and something in me said, 'You don't want to be an engineer, you don't want to be an architect. You want to give your life to music exploration and sharing your musical consciousness with the world.' I did a shift of my directions, no longer going toward technical college but going toward music school.
I remember after having that epiphany, the next day or two, going to my physics teacher, who was very proud of me, thinking, there's a young man who's bright and inquisitive and is going to make a fine contribution to the engineering world. I remember going into his office and informing him that I had shifted from an engineering focus to a music focus. I still recall the energy on his face just shifted, and I'd never seen him give me that smile that he used to give me. So that was a sacrifice I made for making that choice.
RG: It's interesting that you understood early to follow kind of what the universe was presenting to you.
L: Yes, and now that I'm well along my way, I was able to look back through the eyes of people who have become chemical engineers. I've asked them what their life was like and a few have told me it was toxic and boring. My attraction to that career was I thought I would have a nice white coat, I would have a Mercedes in the parking lot and I would work for DuPont, and I would have lots of money. I looked back at how superficial that image was. Now with music, on a daily basis I'm able to explore the feeling of bliss and also to be in service to my fellow beings' state of bliss. It's also a pursuit that allows me to walk in intimate communion with the divine core.
RG: Do you think that would not have been possible had you become an engineer? Could it have become possible in some way as an engineer?
L: I'd like to say yes, because my original intention was to be like Jesus and explore what was behind the life that he lived that allowed him to demonstrate that. If I had chosen to be a chemical engineer, I imagine that that energy and intention would have followed me and guided me to be somewhat useful through that avenue. I'd like to think that once I had awoken, that that interest had awoken inside of me, and that I had received baptism at the age of 12, that that energy and that experience would keep surfacing in a relevant way.
RG: I have also read that there was a time in your life when you wanted to be a standup comic.
L: Yes. And I did explore that for awhile.
RG: Tell me about that briefly.
L: Well, even in high school and grade school I realized the beautiful power of being able to get people to laugh. Being a comic, and getting into comedic activities, was a staple for me. In school I would cut up, when it was time to do talent shows I would invest my time and energy to work with someone else to create comedic skits. When I got to college I would do stand up comedy in a team for college talent shows, and it got to be so good and so yummy that somehow I attracted another comic and said we should go to New York and go to The Bitter End and follow in the footsteps of Bill Cosby. I researched The Bitter End and found out when they had their talent night, and on one college spring break, or winter break, myself and my partner decide to go north to New Jersey and rendezvous at The Bitter End.
It must have been a Thanksgiving break. But when I got to The Bitter End that night, my partner did not show up. I shifted all of my material to accommodate a stand up, and I did it, and the people at the venue gave me such strong encouragement. So I went back to Howard University and sort of closed out that semester. I did four years at Howard, and then I moved to New York City to pursue comedic acting and a stand up comedy career. I did find out when I returned to Howard after the holiday that my partner didn't show up because he had stopped by his home in New Jersey and his mother intervened and was not going to allow him to use his college education to become a comic!
RG: You've been given a lot of choices in life. Your skillset covers a lot of territory, a broad array of things, that arguably you could have done and done very well with. Not everybody gets given all those choices. They may want to do something they don't necessarily have the ability to do.
RG: But you've been given a lot of gifts in that respect.
L: I have, and I thank the people in my life that showed up to be conduits, whether for money or for opportunities to explore and own this gift. Not to mention my mother, not just her, but my relatives played a large role. My uncle and aunt supplied me with a Wollensak tape recorder when I was very young, and they just gave it to me. Well they didn't give it to me, they left it at their home and every time I visited they would allow me to play with it. Without any guidance. So I learned how to fall in love with the idea of recording. That played an essential role in my developing ability to share my music gifts through the recording medium.
RG: Let's go to that for a bit. The famous story is that you are playing music in New York City and you are busking in various places in the city. As I've heard it, you're in Washington Square Park, you're playing music, you are I won't say in a trance, but your eyes are closed and you do not see Brian Eno, the English producer and composer, and another ambient music pioneer, drop his name and number in your case. You find it later and call him, and you two end up doing an album together.
L: Yes, that was about 1979 I believe. That was my favorite corner of Washington Square Park, the northeast corner, and in that particular park at that time there was a cobblestone circle surrounded by these arched benches. It was like a little amphitheater and I would perch myself at the center of that circle in a cross-legged position sitting on a little cloth mat with my modified zither, electric modified zither. It was a simple electronic situation at that time, and in open tuning I would just send these washes and walls of gentle sound out from this meditative state. I was, once again, giving expression to this music that I couldn't play! The best I could do was contemplate the space, contemplate my memory of this feeling of this expansive cosmic field that this music would bring my point to. I would try to do that with my music, point to this nonlinear infinite space that's right here and everywhere at the same time.
What evolved was a music that was more vertical than linear, meaning it didn't really have a melody, it didn't really have a beginning or an ending. But it pointed to the fullness of the moment, the eternal oneness at every point along the music performance time. And so this music, I didn't call it ambient, but Brian felt that it was in the direction of what he called ambient music.
RG: I was going to ask you about that, because I think of your music as being very different, actually, from ambient music. I think of it as having, in some respect, healing properties. I may or may not think that about some other ambient music. I mean, some yes, some no.
L: Yes, that's good you brought that up because I was introduced to the word ambient in relationship to my music. I just inappropriately assumed that all ambient music was about meditation and guiding consciousness to higher states. And later, come to find out, there's a wide variety of musical directions under the umbrella of ambient. From soft music to loud, and intense music to rhythmic music to arrhythmic music, to nature sounds, to experimental music, that doesn't necessarily point to the infinite, point to what you call healing states of mind and body.
RG: I haven't heard all of your albums but there have to be upwards of 50 by now, is that fair?
L: Yeah, that's fair. Some of them are solos, some of them are collaborative.
RG: Your music, from what I've heard, it all seems to float a bit on an astral plane.
L: That's interesting you can use the words so confidently. I like that sound, but I have not yet been able to use the word ‘astral’ with confidence. I might have had astral experiences but didn't know that that's what astral was. I use the word celestial. Astral sounds, it conjures up a sense of resonance that I can relate to, astral. But I'm not sure that I can use the word and say that yes, my music is astral.
RG: How do you distinguish between celestial versus astral, or for that matter, cosmic?
L: The music that points to the listener's presence as being beyond their personal history self. And that self is the container of the universe, that this transparent, weightless, omni spatial, ultra low density super luminous hyperresonant presence is the container of everything, and when I hear astral, astral seems like it's a degree of self presence that still projects as form. In a more maybe luminous way, something called higher and lower astral. I didn't distinguish that with celestial and cosmic, like there's a higher and lower cosmos. I feel like there's just one all-pervading equally present cosmic field. So celestial to me represents field, and astral represents an energetic luminous demonstration within this field. Now I'm kind of making this up as I'm going along here, Kathryn!
RG: Let's have new invention, right?
L: Yeah! The closest I've come to thinking that I’m having an astral experience was in my exploration of ethno botanicals and psychedelic substances, one of which is called ayahuasca, a very awesome experience of being in a heightened awareness of the self as existing in a more transparent way than this dense physical body. It's akin to a dream, a very real seeming dream, where things look solid and power animals, jaguars, reptiles, look real and feel real, and to me that's as close as I come to, 'Ah, this must be the astral,' where if I am in resonance with this space, things look real that otherwise wouldn't appear real to me. Like a dream state.
RG: I think I understand. Do you have a power animal?
L: I don't recognize a power animal. I think one was assigned to me before and it's nice but I don't recognize any particular animal, except if you're talking primates then I would say the human being! The human being is my power animal!
RG: I've meditated to your music a lot over the years, and when I did the laughter workshop with you and Arji (OceAnanda, his partner) a couple of years ago, and with the music that you played, I went into an incredibly deep meditation. I can only speak for me, but I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of people experiencing your music in a very powerful, enlightening and healing way. I'm wondering if spiritual energy and musical energy are essentially the same thing for you?
L: I have to say yes. The spirit, use any word with the word spirit in it, spiritual to me refers to 'of spirit,' and spirit is an omni spatial ultra low density super luminous hyperresonant field, and it doesn't come in parts, it doesn't come apart, and so we cannot be a part of it because all of it is everywhere that any of it is. And when spirit is also feeling or intuition, and music to me is that, it's the embodiment of feeling, the embodiment of this beyond time. At the same time it can warp time, music can shift the perception of time. I use music to manage time, or to liberate consciousness from the linear sense of time flow. So when I say it's spiritual, not all music does that. Some music can jam my breath, it can put me in a state of agitation and I'm too mentally busy trying to either get myself out of agitation or to go with the agitation and party with it. For me, the music I am choosing to channel, and the music I am choosing to listen to, is integral in my approach to managing and being conscious as a spiritual being.
Music helps me to move, and movement meditation. There's something called the Gabrielle Roth 5-Rhythms Dance movement class that I do in New York, and that is using music to take the consciousness through 5 different rhythms, and the last rhythm is of stillness, where the breath is slower and consciousness is in a tighter communion with this timeless spirit field. Music supports that. I like moving, I like dancing, and I like harmonizing, so music is an integral instrument in my communing with self as a spiritual being.
RG: When you're setting out to compose a piece of music, are you actively composing it? Is it partly channeled? Do you have an intent for what you want it to do for a listener?
L: Thank you for your well-sculpted questions! There are two ways I come at this. If I sit down at a piano – let's say I'm somewhere on a business trip or whatever and I discover there's a room in the building with a grand piano, and then I'm free to sit at the piano and play – I'll just go into improvisation, just feeling and enjoying the sound of the piano and communing with this inner meditation through sound. So it's all spontaneous. You could call it channeled, channel-composed music.
And then there is the work I do with electric zither. I actually sit down and co-evolve an open tuning for the instrument. That is, I take the 36 strings and I tune to a chord or a harmonic feeling that I feel says something that I want to say. It might talk about the great out of doors. It might talk about the celestial world of stars and planetary systems. Or it might talk about the timelessness of humanity and the beauty of the human spirit evolving, co-evolving together on the planet. So I will have composed a tuning for the instrument and then I will do improvisations, generally with a recorder going, listen back to the recording and hear directions that I would want to develop for a listening audience. Then I would go in front of an audience and I would just channel compose new music through that tuning and, referencing the practicing and rehearsing that I've done, knowing where the peaks, the valleys and the mountains and the oceans are in this particular musical world, share that spontaneously. Before performing I would be doing deep breathing or doing some yoga postures or some Mind Science affirmations.
RG: For a second it sounded like you were saying Einstein!
L: Well Einstein plays a large role when he says, 'Imagination is everything!' So I will imagine that the audience will have a great experience. I even imagine what the audience will be saying afterwards. This guides me to what I have to do to bring through the music, things like, 'Gee, that music took me someplace I've never been before! Have you got recordings of that?' That part of thinking positive, of setting your intentions by imaging beyond where you want to go, what it's like to having gotten where you want to go. I would write these imaginary feedback quotes that would guide my musical performance experience.
RG: You hear about athletes doing that.
L: Yes, well I found it worked, that Mind Science positive thinking worked hand in hand with career success and as a matter of fact I did that before Brian Eno showed up in my life. I remember doing the Mind Science treatment for the ‘right producer’ because at some point I realized I think I could use a producer right about now, but I wouldn’t know who to go to, I didn't know who to trust, so I remember doing treatments for the ‘right producer.’ The word 'right' was crucial in that kind of treatment. This allowed me to just accept that I don't know who the right one would be, just left it in the hands of the universal flow to bring me to that point of finally meeting up with Brian Eno. Now in interviews when I bring this subject up, that I met Brian Eno in an indirect way through my Mind Science treatment practice, I get a very hesitant response from the interviewer!
RG: You won't get that from me, because Radio Gabriel is all about this!
L: Aha! Groovy!
RG: I'm interested in hearing as much about it as possible. The website is about taking a look at the intersection between spirituality and creativity in whatever form you would look at that or think about it. You are somebody who is operating on both of those levels all of the time.
L: Yes, I'd like to agree with that, and more and more.
RG: It's particularly interesting to hear what you are actually doing. The meditation, the study, the preparation – it's like you're being incredibly conscious about something and then leaving it to the unconscious.
L: Yeah! That's well said. I trust. There's a lot of trust. But there's a lot of preparation before a performance or a workshop, the tuning in and remembering that although I have a body and I have these titles, I'm not a body, I'm not these titles, and so to the degree that I am in conscious communion with this core presence, this infinite ‘I Am,’ it shines through my improvisation, my impromptu music. It's the main message. The music is for pointing to this invisible presence, whether we call it the subconscious mind or pointing to the ability of consciousness to receive this experience of the self beyond the personal history body.
RG: Do you think that as your spirituality started to find a particular path that in some sense it led you to this particular music path?
RG: Because you easily could have gone off to be a jazz musician or a pop musician or something else. You have a really powerful and wonderful singing voice as well. There are lots of things you could have done with it, but you went this way.
L: Yes. And it dictated to me. Well, playing on the sidewalks of New York was a springboard to the kind of commercial success that I’m having. That is, it led me to yoga studios, it led me to New Age conferences, it led me to collaborating with musicians who were interested in going into space music or New Age music. So I would say my explorations on the sidewalks and the parks of New York with the electric zither and my meditation brought me into the arena of the yoga meditation consciousness higher self realization community. And that dictated to me, that's where my paycheck was coming from!
In school, I thought I wanted to go the route of jazz musicians and I kept this image of, 'Gee, I'll become a jazz musician, I'll go to Europe and I'll play in smoky nightclubs and I'll drink Scotch whiskey and I'll have a hangover in the morning, and I'll drive in a fancy car down the rue des Jardins in Paris, and I'll have this fantastic classical jazz musician lifestyle.’ And I am here on tour now in Bern, Switzerland and realizing that I'm having the more appropriate version of that dream. Liberated. That I am in these exotic European places but playing music in different situations, not a smoke-filled nightclub, not a place where I'm forcing people to drink, and having eye contact with my audiences where we hug, and that matters of spiritual directions are easily conversed with.
RG: You seem to have always had a very rich kind of fantasy life. You had the ability to dream certain scenarios for yourself from an early age.
L: Yes! That's good you noticed that. I developed this daydreaming practice that got me in trouble in school! Actually teachers would write to my parents that ‘Your son is daydreaming!’ I really enjoyed and respected the power of creative fantasizing, creative daydreaming. Of course, I had to be taught that doing that during class was not the best time to impress a teacher with your daydreaming skills!
RG: In terms of healing people and listeners in the audience, were you aware from the beginning that that was something you thought your music could do for people?
L: It's something I wanted to do. Yes, in high school I got the idea. Well I kind of formulated into words what my dream was, and that was to be, I remember a line, I wanted to be like Jesus Christ and throw sunlight in the eyes of people and watch their spirits soar. I remember formulating sentences like that, probably my first artist mission statement. I just remember that was a guiding statement I brought forth from myself. I had the intention and the desire to use my life and music for that purpose, of getting people's spirit to soar. Once again, this is sort of emulating what I felt that the image of Jesus Christ was doing for me. I wanted to be like Jesus Christ.
It was not until I started working with open tune electric zither after I had gotten into meditation and was able to use that instrument to represent meditative states and getting feedback from people that they were getting relaxed. That they were going into journeys to other states and other worlds, either on the planet or off the planet. That I was getting, 'Aha! This is working!' It felt good, it felt like I was able to give a gift, an unordinary gift, and I enjoyed that feeling. I wanted to do more of it and it was also in the direction of having that 1974 sound hearing experience, that sound vision that came to me, that here I was, able to emulate and extend that experience into a form of service for others to be connected to their inner higher emotional imagination states.
RG: Let's talk about the zither. You basically invented the electric zither.
L: One could say that. As a matter of fact, when I had the zither it was not electric, and I went to music stores to find a way to electrify it and discovered there was an electric pickup designed for the autoharp. I had never heard it before, so I bought it and began experimenting with electric zither. Then somebody made it known to me that Lovin' Spoonful played electric autoharp but in a more conventional way. I felt like the music I was doing I'd never heard before from anyone else. It was a creative combination of several ideas. The Indian santoor, the tanpura drone instrument, and I was taking the approach of open tunings that was being used by guitarists and using hammers on the zither the same way a hammered dulcimer from the Appalachian mountains worked. I was using a combination of creative ideas to bring forth this instrument, not knowing where it was actually going but I just liked the exploration into uncharted territory and liked the results.
RG: A lot of your music sounds almost orchestral. Is that by design?
L: That's by influence. I would say a strong influence that I forgot to mention is cinematics, cinema scores, movie film scores, and also my exposure to working with orchestras in Howard University, the Washington National Symphony directed by Howard Mitchell. The Howard University choir did several large performance productions with the National Symphony in Washington, DC. I studied orchestral instruments in college and I played with the violin in high school, Broadway music. I must admit that that 1974 experience, that never happened (!) was the height of my orchestral symphonic listening experience. It's not surprising that you hear that influence. I'm not mindful of it all the time until I listen back and I say, 'Yeah, that's rather symphonic orchestral, broad and open.'
RG: There's almost a surround sound feel that happens naturally, which is rather surprising. You don't hear that in other music, necessarily.
L: One of my goals in college was to write music for orchestras. I came to New York to pursue comedy, thinking I would get enough money to buy a nice piano and apartment and write orchestral music, but came to realization that I don't think I could afford to hire musicians to play my music, that's a lot of paychecks! So I found a way of getting my orchestral symphonic consciousness out into the world through the electric zither and through a style of playing and performing that was bigger than life or that covered a broad symphonic kind of harmonic listening experience.
RG: You were doing DIY long before DIY was DIY!
L: Do your own, yeah! I never looked at it that way! Doing my own orchestral, not waiting for the orchestral instruments to show up because I just couldn't imagine me getting to a place to afford a rehearsal and have it recorded. With this way of orchestral, I feel that the music is more spontaneous and fluid. The concept of an orchestra sounding this fluid and spontaneous was what I was able to achieve, like a one-man orchestra. I see orchestras being conducted by an orchestral conductor and I don't think in any way he could leave the script in the middle of the performance and take the orchestra into an uncharted area. I feel I can do that as a one-person orchestra. That I can represent the idea of a fluid, mellifluous orchestral listening experience.
RG: Are you in some kind of, I don't want to say trance or even transcendence, but when you're on stage and you're playing, are you there? Not there? Where are you?
L: Good you asked that question because I am beginning to offer myself. I am the ambient field in the midst of the music happening. I'm witnessing as an ambient field, as an environmental presence, and my preparation for performing usually involves some calisthenics and exercises that prepare me to automatically get into certain spaces with the musical instrument, and let magic and surprising things happen. And then I get out of the way and let those things happen without me forcing it to go somewhere else. I am partially there to initiate the music in certain directions until I fall into something called a surprise or an unknown area of musical expression. Then I get out and come back up into the ambient witnessing place where I'm in the midst of this, enjoying this music as much as the audience is and letting this experience happen.
It's pretty easy when I'm playing electric zither to be in a quasi meditative place. I can get into very still places allowing music to happen where I, as a performer, am in a trance, a light trance. I mean I don't go so far out that I wake up and ask myself, 'Where am I?' I stay conscious of time. I'm able to perform up to the precise second that I'm supposed to end, like before a lecture. So I remain conscious of sound volume, I remain conscious of the time flow, and at times I will decide to shift the mood from let's say a very deep contemplative place to maybe a very excited, ecstatic dance. I'll make little choices like that. It’s a semi trance, and the trance allows me to stay mindful of this omni spatial ultra low density super luminous hyperresonant field, this celestial environment within which this music is happening. So I want to point to this field and this field is none other than who I am! I am conscious of the field to which I'm pointing!
RG: That's a lot to pay attention to!
L: It becomes easier and easier on automatic. I would do this when I was younger but didn't realize I was doing it. Like I'd be at a piano playing music and someone would come up and try to hold a conversation with me and I remember I couldn't hold a conversation and I'd wonder what that was about. I would get tongue tied. It's because I was in trance, and I wasn't owning it, and no one was teaching me at that time the idea of how trance is related to creative conversation. But one time a very dramatic experience happened while playing on the sidewalks of New York. I was playing late one night in the Village, being unmindful of the fact that my musical sounds were disturbing some of the neighbors because it was after 10 o'clock. And a police officer came along and asked me to stop. And I didn’t stop because I was entranced and he thought I was ignoring him. The final output was I was taken in. I was an arrest down on 10th Street in the Village, and they confiscated my musical instrument for a month.
RG: Oh my goodness.
L: Yes! That was a lesson of learning how to come out of trance. Learning to recognize that trance is integral to what I'm doing and learning how to come out of trance in a coherent way. Once again, the officer thought I was purposefully ignoring his presence.
RG: I wonder if that officer remembers it and if he's ever looked you up.
L: Well he was probably new to this experience because as he was writing me up in the police station he was doing it partially at the instructions of a senior officer who was kind of breaking him in on how to handle this particular situation. It was nothing malicious on his part and he didn't really get a chance to hear my music because he came up with the intention of answering a call that a neighbor was making. So he heard my music as part of the disturbance. He probably didn't have time to really drink in the music. But at another time an officer came up to approach me, he said, 'I like your music, I like your chords, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave.' Maybe the Village police precinct was briefing their officers on how to approach street musicians.
RG: I'm really struck by how you kind of follow the breadcrumbs of your personal life and your intuition and what you see ahead. In the stories you've told, it comes out more and more and more. I also read, in talking about the zither, that you were going to pawn another instrument. I think it was a guitar? And the zither spoke to you. Is that right?
L: Yes, I was going into the pawn shop with my acoustic guitar which was worth at least $175. I noticed this autoharp in the window, and I had seen those autoharps. Autoharp and zither are one and the same. I'd seen that autoharp being used by folk musicians and bluegrass ensembles in the Village when I was doing standup comedy but I never had an opportunity to touch the instrument. But I was impressed with the visual look of it. I had an intuitive sense that that instrument had a bigger life than I was hearing it being used for.
So fast forward, here I am in Queens, New York, I needed money, and I went to the pawn shop and there was an instrument in the window that I just visually acknowledged. When I got to the clerk, the clerk only offered me $25 for my instrument. And a very real voice that sounded so real from inside me, very clear and distinct, it sounded like the voice of a great cosmic grandparent with all the love and all the wisdom advising me not to take money for the guitar but to swap it for that instrument in the window. At that time in my life I was doing Mind Science, I was loosely attending Sri Chinmoy’s workshops, I had heard that magical sound in my head, that cosmic music. So all of that was going on and I didn't quite make the connection that that instrument was what I needed to make my life better. But I wanted to explore how this voice inside me, where it was going to take me if I took that instrument. I decided to experiment with this new idea, this new thought, and I swapped it for that instrument and $5. I left the pawn shop and went home and started experimenting with it and the rest of it was celestial music history.
RG: I'm kind of a big believer that the universe gives us multiple opportunities to pay attention. So if you hadn't followed that voice, your life would have perhaps gone in a different direction, or perhaps the autoharp would have jumped in your lap at some other point in time. But it's interesting to think about where your life might have gone if you hadn't listened at that moment.
L: Yes! That is a very astute question because I consider the life I'm on now, it's like that Robert Frost poem, I’m on 'The Road Not Taken,' I'm on the road that wouldn't be taken by my rational, safe thinking mind.
RG: But you have an ability to listen and to hear and to actually do something with it, and actually make that choice as it's being presented to you.
L: Yes. And I'm saying that that is a product of the life I've chosen and the friends that I've surrounded myself with, that I didn't feel the ribbons were so tightly on me at that time. I could take the ribbons off. Taking the autoharp and choosing to work with it was a way of taking the ribbons off of who I was as a musician, so that I could open the gift of new musical direction.
RG: Let's move back into the spiritual place for a bit. You talk a lot about Jesus as a young boy, when you were 12 and wanting emulate what He was doing. But you didn't continue to follow that path, you moved into Eastern philosophy, you moved into Vedic scriptures, you follow Ananda yoga, a variety of things. You went in a different direction.
L: I hear your question, but I don't think I did. I like to say that Jesus pointed the direction and what I did is I stopped looking at His finger and I developed my ability to look at the direction in which He was pointing. As I did some research on His life I understand that He did go to Egypt and study in the mystery schools.
RG: I've read that, too.
L: So that's where I found the Western version of mystery schools, of exploring occult higher self understandings, meditation. I feel like Jesus jumpstarted my interest in that direction, and that's when I decided that if I wanted to be like Jesus I had to stop wanting to be like Jesus and start being like who I am in the eyes of the core Creator. If I'm going to have my own personal experience of the infinite, that I have to stop wanting to have somebody else's experience!
RG: And to have your own.
L: To have my own! Yes, that's what I wanted. I didn't articulate that well at the beginning. I thought, I wanted to be like Jesus, but what I was saying is I wanted to have experiences that He was demonstrating.
RG: You have taken an unusual name, Laraaji, but you were born Edward Larry Gordon.
L: Yes, the body was born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia! In that time called 1943.
RG: Did you take the name Laraaji yourself or was it given to you?
L: It was a combination of both, Kathryn. One that it came at a time, 1978 or 79, when I felt this very warm affinity for the sun and the significance of the sun in my life. I felt like it was time for me to take on a spiritual name because I felt committed to my own spiritual development. I recognized a spiritual name would help me to once again disrobe, take off unnecessary, nonsignificant ribbons on myself. I was looking for a spiritual name and my intuitive sense is that it was going to be a three syllable name and that it would have something to do with the sun. That's all, and I didn't share this with anyone.
Now during that time I was sharing music on the sidewalks of New York and I was getting invited to yoga classes and this and that, and one of the places I was invited to play was on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue outside of a store called the Tree of Life, which was a spiritual center in Harlem at the time run by a man named Kanya. He would have psychic fairs there maybe every other month or so in warm weather. I would donate my music to play outside of the store to attract people into the store where they could read books for free or participate in some of the offerings, the alternative healing offerings.
Now after a couple of months of doing this, two of the brothers there came to me and they said, 'You know, we've been listening to your music and we get an intuitive sense that you should be playing music by a new name, and we've done some research and we've come up with a name for you.' At which point I hesitated to think, 'Oops! If they reveal something to me that I don't like and reject or if they give me a name, will it start a process of wanting to change my name and get new names in the future.' So I took the leap of faith and said, 'OK, if this is a name you really did some research on and want to reveal to me, how about if we meet in Central Park tomorrow, we'll pick a place to meet and we'll have the actual unveiling of the name there.'
RG: You were very serious about this. You waited for the proper time.
L: Yes! Made a ritual. I was concerned because, you know, somebody says we've got a name for you, you say, ‘Uh-oh!’ In the park they revealed the name 'Laraaji,' which was a soft evolution of the name Edward Larry Gordon, Larry Gordon, Larry G, morphed into a name that included Ra, the name of the Egyptian God. And so there it was, a name that was three syllables that embodied reference to the sun as a divine being, and I was wowed by this. That was the synchronicity that told me, 'Yep, I should be taking this name.' And I added one more 'a' to the name to allow the numerological value to be a 7, without understanding at that time that adding the 'a.' made the Ra sound official. In Egyptian, the name of Ra does have two a's. I didn't know it at the time.
RG: I didn't know that now!
L: And so there it was. I took the name and never looked back and accepted it and it works well for me. My biological family had a little awkward time with embracing it but it sounds so close to Larry. Laraaji is the name I accepted in 1979. I did not officially change it because I kind of thought if my career blossomed, and for instance I'm in an airport, the name Edward Gordon rings out better, people have less chance to mispronounce it in situations where I need to have it sound clear. So Edward Larry Gordon is what's on my passport, it's what I do business as, but my celestial business is Laraaji and my performance name is Laraaji.
RG: Your musical and composing name is Laraaji.
L: Yes. It's like the sun. Spiritually it offers me the opportunity to immerse myself in the same service that I view the sun does. Offering selfless service, radiating uplifting light, energizing.
RG: Is there a correlation to the sun as to why you famously wear orange all the time? I went looking online and I even found you in Vogue!
L: Yes! You know, at some points there's a little naiveté in my life. I didn't make the connection of sun and my wearing the colors until a mentor pointed it out to me that these colors are fire, colors of the sun, and they represent transformation. The sunset on the old way of knowing self and the sunrise of the new way of knowing self. The metaphor of shifting the awareness from being a physical personal history to being a universal continuum of consciousness. And that is a big shift!
RG: I also think of it as being a very creative color and certainly in terms of the chakras. On my website the primary color is orange.
L: All right!! Color of transformation, service, good vibrations, cheer.
RG: It's a great color. But you exclusively wear orange.
L: Yes. I like to call it sun colors so that let's say I go out t