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Legendary Ambient Musician Laraaji Details the "Wow" Side of Consciousness

The New Age icon talked to MERRY JANE about the reissue of his record “Vision Songs,” including how the recordings “support the ingestion of positive, uplifting, poetic images.”

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Lead photo by Nathan Perkel for 'Record Culture Magazine' 

This is where this is going on
This is where this is taking place
This is how this is going on
Is this very clear?

The newly-reissued Vision Songs, Vol. 1, originally recorded by New Age legend Laraaji in 1984, is built around this mantra. Is it very clear? Perhaps not on first listen, especially if your first listen comes in a distracted, multitasking environment. But the album, one of the few in Laraaji's extensive discography that foregrounds lyrics, doesn't require an intense close-reading to grasp. It simply asks you to coexist with it for an hour. Laraaji's "vision songs" are about being, not doing, and they're infectious and bite-sized enough to demand undivided listening from even the most New Age-averse, attention-span-challenged ears.

A resident of New York City since the '60s, Laraaji began his journey into spiritual music when he picked up portable zither instruments, such as autoharps and hammered dulcimers, and reimagined them outside of their original contexts as folk instruments. Performing wherever he could carry them, he gained widespread exposure after finding a note from Brian Eno in his instrument case after busking in Central Park one day in the '80s. That note led to Laraaji not just contributing to, but headlining, the third disc in Eno's now-legendary Ambient trilogy. 1980's Ambient 3: Day of Radiance credits Laraaji as its lead artist, and his bright, lively zither compositions offer a radically different imagining of the budding genre than Eno's synth-heavy previous installments.

Laraaji enjoyed a loyal audience in the New Age community throughout the next 30 years, but within the past ten, he's gained an entirely new generation of followers. Thanks to numerous reissues from hip boutique labels like Stones Throw and All Saints, experimentally-inclined young musicians have found a new guru. Queens noise duo Blues Control released a joint album with Laraaji back in 2011, and psychedelic explorer Sun Araw did the same in 2016.

No Laraaji reissue, though, is as readily accessible to listeners from all backgrounds as Vision Songs, Vol. 1, which Numero Group resurrected from its limited original cassette run this January. Whereas most of Laraaji's oeuvre consists of drawn-out instrumental exercises, these recordings are vocals-heavy and song-based, merging his New Age spirituality with structures and melodies that recall gospel, jazz, and pop music. Hearing Laraaji sing is a revelation unto itself, recalling Lonnie Holley or Arthur Russell's softly-cooed experimental folk or Animal Collective's cyclical campfire songs.

Curious to learn about the process that led to an album that stayed true to Laraaji's spiritual vision but diverged in genre and form, MERRY JANE spoke with the zither wizard over the phone.

<a data-cke-saved-href="http://laraajinumero.bandcamp.com/album/vision-songs-vol-1" href="http://laraajinumero.bandcamp.com/album/vision-songs-vol-1">Vision Songs Vol. 1 by Laraaji</a>

MERRY JANE: You've had a lot of collections of your music reissued recently. In your mind, what distinguishes Vision Songs from the rest of your artistic endeavors?
Laraaji: It's a dedicated vocal songs album, and I use the keyboard more in the front than the zither, which is what I use for most of my music.

What were you trying to achieve by using those different elements?
Bliss, joy, softness, spirit. To offer the spiritual community as I knew it then music that would support and reflect and soothe the positive spiritual aspirant or person who's friendly towards the spiritual side of life.

At that point in your life, what was your experience with this spiritual community?
Several of them were communities built around using an Indian spiritual teacher or some esoteric inspirational model, and my association with these groups and these communities was always a source of joy and positive thinking, softness, compassion. At that time, I was immersed in the spiritual directions and spiritual community side of life.

Once the music was recorded, how did you share it with that community?
My sense is that the music gets to that community [on its own]. A following of people find that my music supports them, whether they're doing yoga or healing work or energy work or driving down Route 101 in California. Whether they're one person here or one person there or groups of people that follow different disciplines of yoga or meditation, I'm aware of the community and still serve its presence. Although I don't get to see them all face-to-face, [they have access to] mass media like Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud, live concerts, or syndicated radio programs that specialize in New Age music.

Photo by Nathan Perkel for 'Record Culture Magazine' 

Within the past ten or so years, there's been a whole new generation getting turned onto your music, which has led to the reissues as well as collaborations with younger artists like Sun Araw and Blues Control. What's it like to witness that firsthand?
Well somebody has to listen to it. Gee whiz, I just took it in my stride that the music will find its listeners, and the listeners will find their artists. I felt like it was the law of attraction. It's a rewarding feeling, to know that there are people waiting or looking for or enjoying this music. It feels like an accomplishment and like service, positive service.

I'm also grateful that this kind of — you can call it success — comes with a very spacious sense of personal space. If I were a heavy rock artist, I probably would have followers that would want my autograph, would invade my personal space, but this kind of success that I'm experiencing is success among people who are friendly toward meditation and respect space and are compassionate. It feels good that I've been able to direct my service toward a community that returns their appreciation in a very pleasant, spiritual, and gentle manner.

When people do recognize you or come up and talk to you after a performance, what is that interaction usually like?
It's very surprising because that kind of interaction will usually include a comment on their response to the music. For instance, they might have felt they traveled through different dimensions or gone to a foreign mountaintop or traveled around the galaxy. It'll be friendly, sometimes hugging, as if connecting with a spiritual family, seeing their face for the first time. In cities or countries where I'm meeting people who have heard my music for many years and I'm seeing them for the first time in person, it's a very warm and deeply fulfilling feeling. It's always bordering on laughter and joy.

Speaking of laughter, how would you say your music and your work as a "laughter therapist" are connected?
Laughter is about releasing stress, reducing tension, being in a playful zone, being open, being present in the moment, living with a childlike thrill of spontaneity. For me, practicing laughter reinforces the posture — the emotional, psychological, and physical posture — that I bring into music performance. The breath being light and positive is important in keeping the mood of the music is meditative, celebrational, festive, bliss-oriented. That laughter allows me to constantly monitor my own level of relaxation, even before a performance.

Laughter itself is easing its way into my performance. Laughter as a performance art. It's an infectious, contagious art form. Laughing during the performance triggers laughter in the audience, or deep relaxation or joy, and lifts negative or heavy energy. So laughter has crossed over into my musical performance, and music crosses over into my laughter workshops. They support and feed each other.

Video above directed by Jake Moore and Oliver Rivard

Would you say that a sense of joy or positivity pervades all the music you've ever recorded, or have you ever explored darker or more ambiguous moods?
Sometimes it's such a deep sense of joy that you're on the edge of tears. Realizations of how beautiful this gift of life consciousness really is, aside from having to pay the rent or catch the bus or find a lost sock after doing your laundry, just the pure presence of myself in a body, being conscious in a universe — when I drink that in and really savor it, it's like a big 'wow.' Most of the music is about the 'wow' side of being conscious. Sometimes the 'wow' brings up tears because it's so excruciatingly beautiful.

I have done one song, "Reborn in Virginia," in which I revisited my experience of staying with my grandfolks in the South for seven months. Those are feelings of adventure, of a city boy suddenly thrust into country life, of staring at life in the face as it comes at me from another angle. Call it bliss, or call it a stiff dose of new reality. As strong and as different and as strange as it was at the beginning, I believe it did trigger a deep sense of expanded spirituality because the Southern Baptist church was a staple in my grandparents' life. I felt the presence of spiritual worship throughout that whole time. There were times of fear of the strangeness of country life, and [the song explores] the traumatic side of that.

Other than that, most of my music deals with positivity. The reason that might be is because I've learned that I have a choice to continuously monitor my thoughts and choose highest positive thoughts to go into my subconscious mind. Some people could call that a cop-out of reality, others who choose to decide what kind of emotional and spiritual life they want will choose their thoughts very carefully. My music represents my choice to select positive, high posturing, healthy, loving, nurturing thoughts and images. There's the option to be fearful of the world or to be angry in the world or to be suspicious and doubtful of the world, but I don't feel I want to amplify that in my music.

Getting back to Vision Songs for a second, that album is a little unique in your repertoire because, as you said earlier, it's very vocal-forward. A lot of it is chant or mantra-based, but was the rest of the lyrical composition more stream of consciousness or something you scrutinized at length?
I would usually jump on the synthesizer and vocalize with a tape recorder going for hours, stream of consciousness, and would be inspired by either spiritual material I was reading or a lecture I heard or something that would come up inside my awareness through long hours of meditation. I would play with themes, whether they were word clusters or a single word or a sentence, and songs would begin to emerge around them. When I would find myself in a legitimate intentional performance situation, during those years, I would let those nearly formed ideas, the word clusters, just leap out into song mode. Surprisingly, many of those came forth in complete song form without me having sculpted out the direction of that song beforehand. The words came together spontaneously, and each time I do those songs they come together differently because they're more stories or teachings than set songs.

There's a reflexive property in a lot of the lyrics, where you're switching the placement of the words in sentences or phrases, and totally changing the meeting. Like, "Change will grow us and growth will change us." Is that also a product of playing around with the words at length?
When I'm in the right zone, it's like there's a thin membrane, or no membrane at all, between myself and spirit. There's no between, the spirit is where I am. It flows or downloads itself into my creative performance and I'm just observing it at the time. Words, sentences, poetic statements just come forward and if I'm transparent and open enough, what comes are usually surprise teachings, even to me.

'Change will grow us and growth will change us' — I had not thought of those words in that sequence before, they actually came out in a live recording. That recording was the first time I've used that phrase. Although the songs had a general theme or direction, once I jumped into sharing that direction, a song would fill itself out spontaneously.

Is this a method of composition that you've always had, or was it something you needed to hone via different states of consciousness?
I've always had it, although I didn't always depend on it. There was a time when I tried to sculpt words and music and compositions, and write them out very neatly and send copies to the Library of Congress. Those works never went further than the Library of Congress. The works that I allowed to come through spontaneously felt good, felt free, and I guess the freedom and the joy of doing it showed up in the music. I had that ability very young in life, and eventually I began trusting it as a resource for valid music creativity.

When you started picking up the zither after having played guitar and piano, was it easy to transfer that spontaneity?
It was liberating but it took an adjustment period. The zither is like a liberated piano, using manual hammers instead of the hammers on the keyboard. It's a portable instrument, meaning that I can practice it in my bedroom, I can practice it in Central Park, and I can carry it around. It took a while of hanging out with the instrument and transferring my sense of exercise and calisthenics — when I studied piano I had to do etudes and arpeggios and scales and exercises. I found it easy to transfer that sense of exploration onto the zither, to design exercises that I would repeat over and over until I had developed a vocabulary on the instrument. I had to work with a tape recorder while I was exploring, and I'd listen back to things I wanted to program into my subconscious mind, as a performance artist. It took an intentional effort, and time to be alone with the instrument and a tape recorder.

On Vision Songs, the keyboard is featured very prominently and at that point, you'd already been playing zither for a while. For that set of songs, why did you gravitate more towards the keyboard?
I love the keyboard. I can rock out more. I grew up in an R&B, jazz, gospel music environment, and there'd be a little keyboard, which has sort of a toyish sense to it, like kind of a toy you'd find under a Christmas tree. That music box energy of the Casio MT-70 allowed me to be in a playful mode. At the same time, I could move through my feelings of jazz, rock, R&B, and gospel, and tie it all in with my spiritual lifestyle. There I was having fun with musical forms that I was familiar with and that I'd danced to a lot, and I decided to use them as resources to fuel my exploration into inspirational music.

I did performance on a more legitimate professional keyboard, the Fender Rhodes, in the early '70s, and I'd had a background in both studying piano in college at Howard University School of Fine Arts and actually applying that to a professional jazz rock performer in the early '70s. To take all of that and put it into this little simple Casio keyboard was a joy, a hoot.

As a result of incorporating more of that jazz, rock, R&B, gospel influence into Vision Songs, do you think it's your album that's most inclusive of other genres of music?
Yes. It taps my exposure to those genres. I feel I might have laundered some of that music by putting chant and positive psychological words over that music. It feels good, it feels like I can have the both of both worlds: the joy of in-body feeling, of dancing and moving to that kind of foot-tapping music, and at the same time having that music support the ingestion of positive, uplifting, poetic images.

Buy Laraaji's 'Vision Songs, Vol. 1' from Numero Group

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