Sophie Miles from Mistletone Records recently interviewed new age musician, composer, ambient music icon, sound healer, and laughter meditation workshop leader Laraaji — who has just been announced as part of Dark Mofo’s Welcome Stranger program in June — for a one hour Max Headroom special on Melbourne’s Triple R.
Over the past four decades, Laraaji has amassed a quite extraordinary body of work which is unique in the purity of its intention to bring healing and light into the world. Laraaji makes music with the aim of helping listeners find peace within themselves; his “celestial music”, a blissful blend of cosmic drone and minimalist resonance, comes from a place of total joy.
Laraaji is enjoying a resurgence of interest over the past 10 years, with a slew of reissues of his vast back catalogue of private press releases and the thousands of homemade cassettes he made whilst busking on the streets of New York. Laraaji’s luminous influence is making itself felt amongst a new generation of ambient, electronic and avant garde musicians, sound artists and sound healers.
It might be surprising to learn that long before he had heard the terms “new age” or “ambient”, Laraaji started out as a comedian on the New York standup circuit; and more surprising still, that laughter and comedy still play a huge part in Laraaji’s work. His “seriously playful” laughter workshops combine guided laughter meditations with celestial music performance and deep listening sound journeys to offer an inspirational and mood uplifting experience. Accompanied by his collaborator Arji OceAnanda, Laraaji will be a part of the Welcome Stranger program at Dark Mofo in Hobart.
Sophie Miles caught up with Laraaji last week to learn more about the therapeutic qualities of laughter, and the hearing vision of a cosmic orchestra that inspired Laraaji’s lifelong quest to make celestial music.
Sophie Miles: Laraaji, it’s a pleasure to meet you.
Laraaji: Same here Sophie, and we’re oceans apart, but instantly in each other’s presence here.
Sophie Miles: Yes, indeed. I want to start by asking you about healing, because your music and your life’s work has all been about healing. When did you first discover the healing qualities of music?
Laraaji: Intuitively, I guess I sensed it at the age of six or seven. In Baptist church, I would notice that when the choirs or the vocalists would hit a certain note, how a shift of energy or consciousness would take place, how it would uplift spirits into the celebration zone. So I guess very early, I acknowledged that music had both a healing and transportive power that I used to depend on to escape into my imagination, or to escape from the current vibrational environment, into alternative environments — through sound, through music, through listening, through records, through radio, through listening to choirs, to singing myself.
Sophie Miles: And when did you start singing, did you sing in the choir at church when you were a child?
Laraaji: Yes, the Baptist church had both a youth choir and an adult choir, and also the public school system had choirs and orchestras and marching bands, and I just got my fill on everything I could get my hands on that related to music and music expression, and opportunities to learn a musical instrument and to play in ensembles with other musicians in the school system and in the church. So music was a very present ally (laughs).
Sophie Miles: And was there music in your family as well?
Laraaji: In as far as singing and listening to the radio and records, and church. That was enough to keep me going. In terms of musical performance, I might have been the first in my family who took a musical instrument really seriously.
Sophie Miles: I understand that you actually started out more in the comedy and acting realms when you were in college.
Laraaji: Well, I explored comedy all my life; the art of getting somebody else to laugh and crack up was also a survival technique in my neighbourhood. But in college, whilst studying music, I was able to have fun collaborating with other comedians, creating skits for talent shows, and it got to be so much fun, and I got pretty good at it, that I got the inspiration to go to New York and experiment with doing stand up comedy in the late sixties. My dream was to make it as a comedian, which meant making money so that I could furnish an apartment with a grand piano and get back to composing music.
Sophie Miles: You were in this amazing film Putney Swope, can you tell me about that movie?
Laraaji: Yes, it happened around 1969, I was with a theatrical / acting agent in New York at the time, and she sent me out to read on that particular audition which was being conducted by Robert Downey. I only read two pages of the script, ‘cos that’s all I was involved with, but when I finally saw the whole movie, I was kind of startled at the idea that I could be in a movie without knowing the total message (laughs). So really, my involvement in that movie was the turning point in my meditation lifestyle. I decided from that moment on to invest more time in getting to feel what my spiritual message is, or what it is that I really feel about anything, and get a better consciousness handle on that before moving ahead. So Putney Swope was a revolutionary movie, and it was black and white with a large Black American cast. The subject matter was a 5th Avenue advertising agency, and the humour around it being operated by someone who was left this agency through a will. I did some Off Broadway and some television, but that was the only film that I did.
Sophie Miles: Just getting back to the comedy topic; laughter and comedy are still a big part of the work you do, with your laughter workshops and laughter healing. Can you tell us about how those work, and how it relates to music?
Laraaji: The comedy part of myself has always been present, and when I found out that I could turn my interest in laughter into a meditation, get people to lie down and laugh therapeutically in order to get the medically documented advantages of heavy laughter — from the head to the heart, to the immune system, to the breathing and the lungs, to the whole energy, moods and levels of stress. The laughter workshops are designed to let people play with exercises that allow them to really target and work with the healing side of laughter, when you actually get to send laughter into your body, into your head, into your heart, into your thymus, into your endocrine system. And to stimulate these areas and then to relax them, should take us to a place that’s equal to deep relaxation and yoga. Also, laughter with an audience before a performance allows them to relax so deeply that they’re able to resonate to deeper levels of hearing with the music. It relaxes a person into deeper states of receptivity, meditative receptivity, so that very ambient music expressions get to be received a little deeper, in a deep listening experience.
Sophie Miles: It’s very interesting to me, to think about when you started out busking on the streets of New York — you’d think people wouldn’t be very receptive, that there wouldn’t be such receptivity amongst people in that state of walking around on a busy street, and yet you were inviting them to come into a deeper state through your music. How did that work?
Laraaji: It worked well. And as I’ve grown in understanding of the technical aspects or the psychological aspects of what I’m doing, it’s that in those times of playing on the sidewalks of New York, I would go into a yogic trance state, a meditative state, and the experiment was to see just how much of that state would be communicated to a passerby or a commuter. And I discovered that there is a large amount of that inner resonance, that inner consciousness state, that intention of the performance artist that gets conveyed and transmitted to an audience, to a listener. I noticed that many listeners would stop their busy-ness and just be still for a moment and drink in the music. So it did work well, it provided an ambient, contemplative backdrop to several of the famous areas of New York, from the parks and the plazas to the subway stations.
Sophie Miles: And this is before the term “ambient” was even really used in relation to music, wasn’t it?
Laraaji: Yes, very much so. People asked me what I called my music, and at the time I would just say “beautifully inspired music”, then the term “celestial” started to happen, or “surrealistic”, just beautiful music. When I sit down to do music, I don’t really give it a title. I just let what comes up out of a place of expanded inspiration and a feeling of just joy or wonder about this glorious thing called life, and this beautiful environment called the Universe.
Sophie Miles: Oh, that is beautiful. Could you tell me about when you discovered your instrument, the zither, or the autoharp as they call it?
Laraaji: It is called an autoharp officially here. Technically it falls into the category of zither, a zither is strings stretched over a resonating box. My first exposure to the instrument, Sophie, was in the years when I was doing stand up comedy in Greenwich Village, and the hootenannies and the talent shows would involve comedians and musicians, sometimes bluegrass ensembles, about five to six players, and one of the musicians’ role was to play the autoharp. That was my first exposure to hearing and seeing the instrument, and it looked very interesting. Fast forward to the years when I was playing electric piano with a jazz rock group called Winds of Change in New York. I was in a pawn shop one day, pawning a guitar, since I wasn’t using the guitar in my life at the time, and a very clear inspiration directed me to swap the guitar, instead of money, to swap it for the autoharp that I was aware of in the store window. So I left that pawn shop that day with an autoharp, never having touched one before. I took it home and began exploring with it, experimenting with it. My experimental attitude was what took me through a lot of the early stages of finding my vocabulary and my voice through that instrument.
Sophie Miles: It is such an amazing sound. I think the sound that you’ve made with that instrument, the word celestial is perfect for it. It sounds other worldly.
Laraaji: Yes. When I hear you say what you just said, it reminds me of something I tend to leave out of my story. Somewhere in 1974 — through my meditation practice, and through intention and through experimental consciousness states — I attracted a hearing experience, of hearing a cosmic orchestra that vibrated in a non linear way. And it lifted my consciousness into conscious eternity, and also a very clear awareness that this present moment is the only time there is, and that everything in the universe is going on right now. So this is something you could probably figure out on your own if you stopped to really think about it, but during that experience of hearing this cosmic music, I felt like my heart cracked open, and love for the whole universe and the whole idea of life. And I guess from that moment on, I’ve been trying to emulate that experience and touch that experience, and share the way that experience impacted me; share it through the way that I move music in this dimension. For it was that hearing that cosmic orchestra or that cosmic sound current in the 1970s, that still inspires me to reach for a music that fills another kind of space; a space that was made available to me by hearing this music. I could call it vertical space, or I could call it eternal space, or non linear space; but when I bring forth music in reference to that space, usually the listener is lifted out of their emotional heaviness in this world-space, and for a moment get a glimpse of this other alternate space. That’s one way I’ve been trying to explain what happens when people hear the music, that I’m sharing an inner experience through sound of an alternative dimension. And when you say “celestial”, it tells me that it’s getting across.
Sophie Miles: Well, I think a lot of people, perhaps now more than ever, are desperately seeking that sort of space, in the world that we have today, where there is so much stress and so much noise. Do you think that there’s a renewed interest in new age music, if you want to call it that, and meditation and yoga? Of course you started out at a time when there was a lot of consciousness raising in the late 60s and early 70s. Can you see parallels between that time and now?
Laraaji: What I see is, the ones that invested time and energy, and were sincere in diving into meditation and metaphysics and alternative consciousness practices, there was a very tangible enthusiasm around that — going to lectures, going to seminars, going to conferences, sitting in the presence of gurus and practising yogic techniques. In the present time, I know that there’s an expansion of yoga interest because a lot of yoga studios are popping up, being guided by students who have studied yoga from the ones who were practising in the sixties. And so I see a generation coming up of people whose nervous systems are very accustomed to Savasana. So what happened in the sixties was this reaching for yoga, alternative and transcendental states of consciousness, and what I see now is that this early push has spread out and become like a plethora of yoga studios and teachers and artists that are offering yoga students more experience, more bang for their buck. I mean myself as a musician, I play for a lot of yoga classes and for meditation, with the confidence that a lot of people have been prepared for Savasana and deep relaxation by the yoga enthusiasm that got started in the sixties. I see that there’s a quiet, peaceful, expanding community.
Sophie Miles: And do you also see that in the interest that’s sprung up amongst young musicians who are now going back and discovering work like yours, and some of the collaborations you’ve done with artists like Sun Araw? It feels like this is something that’s been growing in strength in the last few years, and also a lot of your material which was so hard to find has now become available since it’s been reissued on labels like Leaving Records. Do you see a resurgence and a connection with the next generation of musicians now?
Laraaji: I’m getting many emails from musicians across this lovely planet who want to collaborate and to express how my music has inspired them to reach for their music. So I’m awares of musicians reaching for this — we could call it ambient, we could call it new age, we could call it explorational — but I’m more aware of it because I travel and I meet musicians who tend to come out of the closet and introduce themselves to me, and talk about how their music has been inspired by what I’ve done. And their music is trans-orient, ambient-orient, deep, long forms, new and experimental. So I’m getting to see that — I don’t know if it’s always been here and I’m just getting to see it, and maybe every age has this surgence of something that’s new and experimental — but I do see it in my travels.
Laraaji will perform a laughter meditation and music workshop in collaboration with Arji OceAnanda as part of Welcome Stranger at Dark Mofo in June. More info: https://www.darkmofo.net.au/schedule/welcome-stranger