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.
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]
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.