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Friday, June 10, 2016

“Music That is Bigger Than Mundane Life:” Laraaji on His Life as a New-Age Artist

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2016 at 10:35 AM

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Though chiefly instrumental, new-age music is music with a purpose. Call it background or spa music if you will, but new-age tunes can be used for a multitude of purposes, such as relaxation, help with sleeping, optimism, inspiration, and more. 

Introduced in the '60s, one of its modern-day pioneers is a musician by the name of Laraaji, a graduate of Howard University with a degree in music composition, who was formerly a comedian and actor. In 1969, he appeared in Robert Downey Sr.’s classic satirical comedy movie on race, media manipulation, and corrupt corporatism, Putney Swope, which inspired a change of heart in the then-burgeoning actor. 

“I experienced a vibrant response to the film from one black poet in Harlem and it got me thinking that maybe I don’t want to throw myself into the mass media," he says, "but maybe I want to use my energies in the mass media to be more conscious.”

It was at that point that Laraaji, then known as Edward Larry Gordon, stopped acting and doing stand-up comedy, and instead started reading about Eastern practices, such as meditation and yoga.

“Meditation helped me to not only feel eternity and feel the more subtle universal reality, it helped me to have a full blown cosmic orchestra experience in the '70s,” says Laraaji. “And having that experience set the model for what I want to do in this dimension.”

While living in New York City, Laraaji pawned his old guitar and traded it in for an autoharp, a small, portable, stringed instrument that would usually finds its way into folk and bluegrass. But Laraaji wasn’t interested in playing folk music; instead, he imagined "non-linear music” being made with the autoharp, “music that’s very uplifting, music that helps consciousness recall it’s connection to the infinite,” he says.
He started experimenting with the autoharp, plucking or hitting its strings with various mallets, zither hammers, or brushes used for jazz drumming, to create weird rhythms and celestial sounds. Next came Laraaji’s experimentation with electronic effects and amplification of the autoharp to create gently shifting soundscapes inspired by the ocean, using reverb and echo. 

Aside from a later mentorship with the Irish hammer dulcimer player Dorothy Carter, Laraaji’s experimentation and style of playing was completely his own. “I found my own vocabulary for the instrument,” he says. His inspiration came from jazz harpist Alice Coltrane and the minimalist avant-garde composer Terry Riley, “who presented sound listening experiences [as] a cacophonous, immersive kind of music,” Laraaji says.  

But in the '70s, Laraaji was far from the only musician experimenting with new-age music and other-worldly sounds. Various artist across the country, mostly in isolation from each other, were creating similarly immersive, ambient music, using electronics and synthesizers, inspired by the same sense of wanting to connect to something spiritual and mysterious out there in the universe.

“Perhaps we were all being inspired by a connection to a nonlinear sky vibration that’s washing down into this dimension,” Laraaji says. “We came out of the '60s when there was a wide exploration of psychedelics and ethnobotanicals, hallucinogenics, and mind altering substances. There was the introduction of meditation on a large scale, and The Beatles, and The Doors, and Carlos Castaneda, Aldous Huxley, and Baba Ram Dass, and  suddenly you got this new terrain of experiences on which to bounce forward into creative expression…which might all sound abstract until you have a toke on something interesting, and you start bringing music forth that is bigger than this mundane life.”

Decades later, in 2013, Light in the Attic Records released a compilation of new-age music from the '70s called I Am the Center, which included Laraaji's old tunes. The album helped spark a renewed interest in early new-age music, especially that of Laraaji’s. Contemporary musicians and producers like Sun Araw, who Laraaji is working on record with, and Matthew David, who has reissued Laraaji’s music on his record label, Leaving Records, have taken influence from Laraaji’s music.

“We don’t know what we’re doing” Laraaji says about his collaboration with Sun Araw, which basically will unfold as an extended jam session. “We just let things happen. I’ve surrendered into the moment and allowed myself to be a vessel of a contemporary connection to the infinite, to the absolute."

On Saturday, June 11, Laraaji will be performing with Sun Araw at The Lab, an experience that Laraaji says will be both inspiring and revelatory for the audience. 

"Each individual who attends these concerts should feel a permission to surrender to their inner core, their inner connection," he says. "At that point, if the attendees are then lifted, radiated, vibrated, and released into a lighter mental space and a lighter heart space, then that’s what I’d consider the worth of sharing this music.”

Laraaji will be performing with Sun Araw at The Lab in San Francisco on Saturday June 11th.

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Sam Ribakoff

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