INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Sydney Morning Herald MAY 23, 2009 - by John Shand
OUTSIDE THE SQUARE
A former New York busker heads to the Opera House, with a little help from Brian Eno.
Buskers take heart. You, too, could have a famous producer wander past, drop a scribbled note among the coins and turn you into an international recording artist.
That's what happened to Laraaji, a sometime actor, writer, stand-up comic and busking musician who was discovered by Brian Eno in New York in 1979. In his eyes, however, this was no lucky break but the logical consequence of the power of positive thinking.
Like many artists of all sorts in the 1960s and '70s, Laraaji had turned from existential self-flagellation to the saffron waft of Eastern philosophy and mysticism. His personal magic carpet ride led him to meditation, tai chi and on to metaphysical writings.
"One of the paths that I was experimenting with was called 'new thought'," he tells me. "Its idea was that you could practise thinking by deliberately choosing a new thought on a daily basis. You could choose a new way home, or a different way of putting on your shoes; doing something that feels unfamiliar."
At the time, Laraaji, who can play many instruments, desperately needed money, so he pawned his guitar. "Instead of taking money," he recounts, "this voice inside my head said: 'Don't take money, swap it for this autoharp'. So I said, 'Wow! This is really a new thought.' So I decided to go with it and see where it would lead. I left that pawnshop with five dollars and the autoharp."
Laraaji, who was born the more prosaic Edward Gordon in 1943, tried tuning the instrument to his favourite guitar chords and found the effect of exploring just one chord for long periods was very similar to meditation. Having developed his own approach, he added zither to his armoury, electrified it, and took to the streets and parks of New York.
As well as pursuing the "new thought" regime, Laraaji followed the process of positive affirmation espoused by the Mind Science Foundation.
"I remember saying to myself, 'I am attracting the right producer to my life'," he says.
"Perhaps a month or two later, I'm playing in [Washington Square Park] and along with the money in my case there was this quickly jotted note that was something like: 'Dear Sir, please excuse this ragged piece of paper. I am working on a project, if you would be interested in hearing about it. Brian Eno.'
"I called him the next day and had a meeting with him. We talked about ambient music and I wasn't sure what he was talking about. He was putting words on something that he'd heard me doing and I hadn't heard those words being used for what I was doing. And so we started the project together."
The result was Day Of Radiance, the third album in Eno's ambient series. (Other albums in the series are Eno's Music For Airports, The Plateaux Of Mirror and On Land.) Suddenly Laraaji was transformed from busker into an artist whose music was widely embraced by the New Age industry.
He also began conducting meditation seminars and it was a short step for the ex-stand-up comic to incorporate laughter into these events. "I was opening my workshops with about five or ten minutes of laughter exercises," he says, "and the laughter grew and grew until it became a workshop of its own. Now it's become therapeutic and [it's] laughing consciously to promote wellness."
Most people probably think of laughter and mediation as being almost complete opposites but Laraaji began to see important connections.
"Laughing is an energy release," he explains. "After fifteen minutes of laughter there's a quietude that pervades the energy system: the body, the mind and the heart. And what remains is a soft, open presence that is very receptive to spontaneous awareness."
For his second major release, Flow Goes The Universe, Laraaji recorded vocals, African mbira, keyboards, percussion and Tibetan gongs. He will perform the album in its entirety as part of Eno's Luminous Festival at the Opera House in June, as well as conducting laughter workshops.