It’s almost four decades to the day since Laraaji was first discovered busking on the streets of the Big Apple with his zither. Over the years, the New Age icon has built a musical legacy around otherworldly, eclectic sounds and vibrations that transcend listeners to a soft state of pure, collective bliss, one that he’ll be recreating this Saturday at SSFB – Utrecht. But before that, Angela Donskaia caught up with the man himself for an indepth chat.
Hi beautiful Laraaji. What are you doing right now?
I’m in Harlem, upstate New York; it’s kinda misty. There’s some nice moody rain outside, and it’s almost 12 noon. I’m sitting in a nice comfy house with a fire going on. It’s really peaceful here.
How has living in New York influenced your way of producing music?
Well, I believe that living in New York allows me to put some tension and high energy into my music, and it provides a good model for composing. When I’m improvising the energy of the city is just baffling. I feel that it contributes to some of the expressions in my music. I also love having walks in Central Park for instance. And then there’s the water that surrounds New York. I get to look at water and greenery all the time here, so it kind of influences my softer side as well. They complement each other – the peace and quiet, and the high energy.
How do you stand still in a city full of so many sounds?
Through walking in the park, and regularly practicing quiet meditation at home. I live on the 5th floor and although New York is very busy, volume-wise I have double-pane windows, which cover the noise. I also dance a lot and and it led me to dance meditation. I’m really inspired by Gabriel Roth’s 5Rhythms meditation.
Is it a bit like ecstatic dancing?
Yes, they’re in the same ballpark.
What’s the story with Brian Eno? There are a lot of stories out there on your musical discovery.
Brian Eno came across one of my performances in 1979, whilst I was playing the zither live one evening in Washington Square park, Greenwich village. It was an improvisation performance. He left me a note with an invitation to join him on his ambient recording series. And so I did. What followed was the release of the LP Ambient 3 (Day of Radiance).
Can you tell us more about the style of music you play?
The music I play evolved from exploratory jam sessions and experimental recording sessions in the late 1970s. With the intervention of new creative electronics for musical instruments my music is continually evolving into fresh, original ambient sound recordings and performances.
You’ve had a career as a stand-up comedian. Do you think performing comedy is related to what you do as a musician now?
Yes, it is. Laughter is a way to relax, but it’s also stimulating. Doing stand-up has prepared me for performing to an audience; how to keep them both relaxed and stimulated at the same time. Comedy is also a way of serving, just like music is. It’s serving in the purest sense.
The step towards creating music, did it happen organically?
Both comedy and music were already part of my natural way of being. Hanging out with friends and creating comic situations, but also jamming were my favorite activities before I made a career out of them. Slowly but surely, it attracted people who wanted to hear more of it – from New Age expos and meditation groups, to talent shows and theatrical agencies in NY. In the late 1960s I was introduced to a theatrical agency in New York which turned my comedy interest into a career. And it was my playing on the sidewalks of New York that got me into the career of music performance – the Brian Eno encounter.
Could you specify the wave of emotions that comes to life through the music you make?
Yes, joy and celebration, as well as tranquility and serenity. Those are themes that come up in my spiritual life, so they are very present for me. A unified field of images and inspirations naturally find their way to most of the music I play. But of course I play music for people who are looking for those specific effects; music that is calming, expansive and meditative. I can also play jazz, rock & roll and up-tempo music, however, which I do when I’m jamming. When I play professionally for an audience I aim for serene, ambient relaxation and positive celebration.
How important is audience response to you?
I rather there be no applause. My preferred audience is usually one with blindfolds on, lying down in a restful yoga position; so, not standing up applauding or responding physically. The response I look for is one of deep relaxation. Hand clapping breaks the energy of the music in a space, so I prefer none. Instead, I’d try to a leave long space of silence at the end of a concert before letting the audience applaud – if that’s what they want to do.
The dialogue with the artist performing right before or after you – do you interact with that energy as well?
Yes. If we both agree, one way we could interact with the performer before me is an overlap. So we’ll overlap for 15 or 20 minutes of an improvisation before I perform my set. Or if I’m playing a festival, the other way is whoever they put up in front of me, I’ll pay attention to them and use that as an indication of how I should start my performance – whether I should start high or low energy, peaceful or rhythmic.
One can even say there’s some “soft” collaboration taking place between you and the artists.
Yes, generally I get booked into situations that are focused on ambient, electronic and experimental music. I think SSFB is already making sure we’re on the same page.
Which effect do you best hope to achieve while performing? Is it to make the audience very conscious or lead them into a soft spiritual state of trance?
That’s it! A soft spiritual trance. The feeling that I like best is one where I am immersed in a unified feel, a universal oneness. In that field I’m interacting and building rapport with it, complementing it and doing my sonic impressions of someone who is in a state of trance.
It reminds me of a ritual in a way.
Yes, I accept that as being a ritual. Even the few hours before a performance are very much a part of the process. Then I do yoga exercise, tai chi or some quiet centering. Practicing my instrument and setting it up; all of that forms a ritual that allows me the focus to get into that trance space later on.
Do you do a lot of moral wanderings when producing music?
I do lots and lots of dancing. That’s my favorite way of recreation. It’s also a form of exercise and an opportunity to practice my singing voice, and my rhythmic energies. On top of that it allows me to hear new music. The DJs playing always introduce new sounds to my
What’s on your mind lately?
I’m still vibrating from a trip to Northern California, where it was super smoky. Me and my travel companion were wearing breathing masks for half the time we were there. It made the climate-shift situation more real for me. And lately I’m appreciating clean breathing a lot more. Even in New York. Next to that I’m constantly exploring new electronics to help make my sound better.
Could you perhaps specify what type of new electronics you’re currently exploring?
I’m experimenting with sound effects: Echoes, phase shifters, tingling sounds. I’m always trying to modify my electric sound. There’s this program called ThumbJam, and another one is Korg iM1, a synthesizer that has been designed for iPad use. I just discovered them and am hooked on experimenting with them.
What are you currently working on?
Warp Records asked me to produce a solo piano album. This project starts upon my return from Utrecht for the upcoming SSFB. And well, piano is my major instrument.
What is your favorite sound?
I like the seashore, walking along the beach listening to the surf, especially after doing a concert. To be immersed in that sound is my favorite feeling. I also love Barbra Streisand’s voice and a group called Heart.
What do you listen to when you’re home alone?
I listen to Pandora; it’s an internet radio station. I also listen to a lot of Comedy and New Age music, exotica music, and some dance music.
It’s probably the question you get asked all the time; the color orange seems very dear to you. When was that love-at-first-sight moment? And is there a track you can link to this color? A way of synesthesia, perhaps?
In New York during the late 70s, I discovered orange was a clothing choice for various religious groups [Think Hare Krishna]. It’s vibrant, energizing and positive. It’s like wearing the sun. What began as an experiment developed into a creative performance – a wearable work in progress.
If I could link a music track to the color orange it might be “Hare Jaya Jaya Rama I”, a track from my Vision Songs – Vol.1 album, released in January 2018 by Numero Group.
With regard to your music, how do you view the online world? Inner peace is reached through a deeper connection from within; the online world on the other hand, can be more disconnecting in some ways.
I do go online a lot to listen to New Age music on Pandora radio. It also allows me to connect with people though. I receive a lot of emails from people directly or through Facebook, sharing stories and testimonials when they have been inspired by my music.
Is there one story that struck you most lately?
Yes, one message was from someone in a deep funk blues, who used my music to pull himself out of a depression. Another testimony was from people who had played my music on their car stereo while driving through a hurricane. It helped them stay calm and positive.
Any fond memories of the Netherlands?
I’ve been to the Netherlands several times. I feel supported there because I love the color orange, haha. I also feel like it’s a place where cannabis is legal, so more people are legally high. That can really relate to some of my deeper expressions in music.
Can you recommend a book that shares your life philosophy?
The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan. It’s a book that supports the idea of music being healing and therapeutic. It’s the one book I would advise to newcomers or musicians, to help open them up to the idea of a free attitude towards what music can be. It’s also recommended for just about anyone. You could translate the message in the book to suit your own artistic quest.
Finally, to get a beautiful glimpse of your sources of inspiration, could you perhaps share a couple of tracks from artists that are dear to you, that you are inspired by?
"Magnificent Gallery" (1988)
"And the Stars Go with You" (2002)
"Lizard Point" (Remastered 2004)
"Being Here" (1992)
"Flow Stone" (2001)
"Meditation #1" (1980)
Harold Budd and Brian Eno
(2005 Digital Remaster)
"Australian Dawn" (1988)
World Receiver (1996)
Faces of the Christ
BORA BORA (2000)
Jonathan Goldman & Laraaji
CELESTIAL REIKI (2000)
This excerpt of "Quiet Space" from "CELESTIAL REIKI" by sound healing pioneers Jonathan Goldman & Laraaji is ambient, soothing and healing.
Silvia Nakkach & David Darling
Inside the Om
"The Dance #1"
Laraaji will be performing at Strange Sounds From Beyond – Utrecht on Saturday December 8, 2018. Tickets are available here.
Photos by Liam Ricketts and Jorge Alfano