Meet Laraa­ji, the 76-year-old sound artist who opened for Solange

At Grace Wales Bonner’s Devotional Sound event, the New York crowd was bathed in soul-calming vibrations from Harlem’s distinguished sound artist.

The artist known as Laraa­ji is 76, wears only orange cloth­ing (“I call them sun colours”) and could be called a musi­cian, but what he per­forms can­not be defined sim­ply as music. He is an expert at zither, mbi­ra and bel­ly laughs. At Grace Wales Bonner’s Devo­tion­al Sound, a packed out – and I mean sar­dine tin – event at St. Peter’s Church in mid­town Man­hat­tan, he had the crowd in stitch­es. Laugh­ter is a big part of the Laraa­ji expe­ri­ence. He honed his craft as an emcee at Harlem’s Apol­lo The­ater, intro­duc­ing leg­endary acts like B.B. King and Car­la Thomas, and lat­er as a come­di­an. Then he gave it up to pur­sue med­i­ta­tion, exper­i­ment­ing with hal­lu­cino­gens in the 70s and reach­ing towards a high­er con­scious­ness with yoga med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. And music, of course.

One day in 1979, while busk­ing in Wash­ing­ton Square Park, Bri­an Eno dis­cov­ered him play­ing the zither. He was floored, and helped Laraa­ji mid­wife his most pop­u­lar album to date, 1980’s Ambi­ent 3: Day of Radi­ance. On Spo­ti­fy, his music appears on playlists with names like Dreamy Vibes” and Deep Lis­ten­ing.” At St. Peter’s, patrons like Tel­far, Dev Hynes, and Zsela Thomp­son took it in turns rest­ing their eyes to his music, before the crowd was wok­en up” and beck­oned to laugh along with him. It was din­ner and a show, so to speak. A music per­for­mance punc­tu­at­ed with affir­ma­tions. An aur­al palette cleanser before the night’s head­lin­er, Solange. But before she stepped on stage, for a brief sus­pend­ed moment at least, New York came to a stand­still to – as Laraa­ji puts it – wit­ness eternity.

What is your name?

When I book an air flight, it’s Edward Lar­ry Gor­don. And when I’m per­form­ing, it’s Laraa­ji. I pick up the tele­phone, peo­ple on the oth­er end say, Laraa­ji, is that you?”

So who gave you that name?

Two broth­ers work­ing at a spir­i­tu­al cen­ter in Harlem in 1979. After being exposed to my music for over a year, their inspi­ra­tion guid­ed them to research a name for me that involved hon­or­ing the sun – Ra, in Egypt­ian ter­mi­nol­o­gy. And also a name that was a soft tran­si­tion from Edward Lar­ry Gor­don, Lar­ry Gor­don, Laraa­ji. So in 1979, I took the name in a cer­e­mo­ny in Cen­tral Park.

What hap­pened at the ceremony?

They revealed the name to me. They told me they had a name for me. When some­body says they have a name for you, you think, Well if I don’t like it, I’m going to embar­rass them.” So let’s meet in the park and we’ll have a rit­u­al. At the rit­u­al, they revealed the name to me and I tweaked it by adding anoth­er a’ so that the numero­log­i­cal val­ue of the name is seven.

And so since 1979 you’ve been Laraaji.

Yes.

I read you were an emcee at one point at the leg­endary Apol­lo The­ater in Harlem.

The emcee [gig] was very use­ful in mak­ing me aware of stage pres­ence and also con­fi­dence of being on stage and per­form­ing because I was around many pro­fes­sion­al per­form­ers: Bar­ry White, B.B. King, Bob­by Blue Bland, Car­la Thomas. That expe­ri­ence as a come­di­an was part of my jour­ney of using com­e­dy to get peo­ple to relax and get into the laugh­ter zone. I did bomb once on stage at the Apol­lo. That was a very iso­lat­ing expe­ri­ence. I felt alone in the uni­verse. If you bomb on the stage at the Apol­lo The­ater, you don’t for­get it!

Was it just that the crowd was not react­ing how you had hoped or were you get­ting booed?

I think Bob­by Blue Bland was on first. Then they cleared the stage to pre­pare for B.B. King. I was tired that day, so I emceed then I went upstairs to take a nap in the back of the the­ater. I’m nap­ping and I hear this knock on the door. Hey, you’re on.” So I rushed down­stairs half-awake and I go out in front of the mic and say, Hey! Wasn’t B.B. King great? Give him a hand!” [laughs]

And the audi­ence hadn’t seen him yet?! So if that same sit­u­a­tion were to hap­pen today how would you have treat­ed it differently?

Today, I would prob­a­bly be con­sid­ered a faith heal­er because B.B. King is not with us any­more. [laughs]

Very true.

Dur­ing the 70s, there was a lot of exper­i­men­ta­tion going on. Were you doing much of that at that time?

I was exper­i­ment­ing with soft hal­lu­cino­gens: hash, mar­i­jua­na. Alco­hol wasn’t that use­ful. Mush­rooms. Chant­i­ng, going to dif­fer­ent yoga and med­i­ta­tion cen­ters and sit­ting and lis­ten­ing to teach­ers, then prac­tic­ing sit­ting in med­i­ta­tion. I searched for a while to find my own med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. I final­ly felt less like a tres­pass­er when I read this book: Richard Hittleman’s Guide to Yoga Med­i­ta­tion. It encour­aged me to learn how to breathe and how to sit still with­out fid­get­ing. How to keep my focus on a point on the wall for 21 min­utes. And as dif­fi­cult and bor­ing as that sounds, some­thing hap­pens after 21 min­utes, I found out. Anoth­er ver­sion of present time slips into the aware­ness, into the con­scious­ness. The resis­tance breaks down. And some­thing very near comes from the back­ground into the fore­ground of con­scious­ness. That’s when med­i­ta­tion becomes fun. I’ve found that I could sit for hours because I’m no longer a human body watch­ing the uni­verse. The uni­verse says, you are the uni­verse watch­ing your­self. That’s a trip some of us can expe­ri­ence if we do the right substances.

Do you think peo­ple today take hal­lu­cino­gens and drugs for that rea­son?

My thought is that they do it to escape and get away from oppres­sive ele­ments of soci­ety, of fam­i­ly. Or of not hav­ing con­fi­dence or faith in the way the world is going. And sub­stances are a quick way to shift per­cep­tion.

Do drugs make you more creative? 

The word drugs” is tricky because you go to hos­pi­tal and the doc­tor says, here are drugs. But we’re talk­ing about plant teach­ers or plant med­i­cine. That is a more respect­ful way of [dis­cussing it]. Peo­ple who align them­selves with oth­er dimen­sions through the use of plant med­i­cines. Ayahuas­ca. Pey­ote. These kinds of sub­stances allow you to see anoth­er ver­sion of real­i­ty that is sacred, dear and inspiring.

When did you first come into con­tact with Grace Wales Bonner?

Maybe six months ago, in the mid­dle of 2018, when my book­ing com­pa­ny men­tioned the Frieze art expe­ri­ence going on in Eng­land and that there was inter­est of me being part of it. We had talked on the phone just pri­or to my com­ing over.

And what did Grace say?

We talked about the divi­sion of what she want­ed to do. The nature of the space in which I was play­ing. How to keep a med­i­ta­tive sanc­tu­ary space graced in orange. It took me a lit­tle while to under­stand that she was very famil­iar with my music for many years. She hadn’t just chose my name out of a lottery.

Have you heard of ASMR?

A-S-M-R. Is that a teaching? 

It’s called autosen­so­ry merid­i­an response. Basi­cal­ly it’s a lot of whis­per­ing sounds, tap­ping sounds peo­ple do into the micro­phone. And it’s meant to trig­ger this autosen­so­ry merid­i­an response where you expe­ri­ence these tin­gles or shiv­ers. Some peo­ple cre­ate these sounds to trig­ger those feel­ings, either to relax you or help you med­i­tate. But peo­ple have got­ten real­ly into it on YouTube.

I’m open to know­ing more about that. I don’t dis­miss it. I’ve not heard of it. I would say that there are many paths to get to an expand­ed self and under­stand­ing. I don’t know them all but I’ve tried a few. Ulti­mate­ly, it comes down to the inten­tion and being present. Releas­ing con­scious­ness from unnec­es­sary or nonessen­tial content.

What would you say is nonessen­tial content?

One unnec­es­sary con­tent is your per­son­al his­to­ry self. Learn­ing how not to make that your dom­i­nant iden­ti­ty; it serves you. In sit­ting still to get to the pure I am,” I’m not the body. I’m not a musi­cian. You take off every title that is attached to I am. So that you’re left with just I am.” To say any­thing attached to the I am” is tem­po­rary. Tem­porar­i­ly impor­tant but it is con­sid­ered non-essen­tial. You want to be in com­mu­nion with your real identity.

What do you have planned for the future?

My piano solo album is record­ed, wait­ing to be mixed. My sched­ule is start­ing to take shape, so it’s trav­el­ing around the world more and more. I enjoy know­ing that I have some­thing to share and that there are peo­ple who want to hear it.


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