"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut NOVEMBER 2013 - by Louis Pattison
"PEOPLE IN A TRANCE DON'T BUY DRINKS"
Reintroducing Laraaji, Eno's favourite zither-playing New Age busker
One evening in 1979, Laraaji Nadabrahmananda was busking in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. Laraaji's performances would draw tourists, hippies and passers-by, given pause by this man in the lotus position, eyes closed, playing serenely on his amplified zither. "During rush hour, people would stop, sit and relax," recalls laraaji. "After, they'd tell me they felt a release of tension. It gave them an opportunity to breathe a little clearer."
That night, though, as Laraaji resurfaced from Lama his trance, he found a note in his zither case. "It said, 'Sir, please excuse this impromptu introduction,'" he recalls. 'I would be interested in speaking to you regarding a music project I am working on. Yours, Brian Eno.'"
The pair set to work on the third release in Eno's Ambient Series, 1980's Day Of Radiance. Consisting of three tracks played on hammered dulcimer, two on zither, it placed Laraaji in the foreground, with Eno supplying subtle layering and echo. "Brian explained his concept of ambient music," says Laraaji. "It's music you can just be in... I thought yes, that's how I relate to my music."
Day Of Radiance introduced Laraaji to a global audience, but he was no overnight success. Born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia, he studied piano and violin before moving to New York in 1966. There, he played doo-wop and jazz, and performed stand-up. As the '60s ended, he began meditating but struggled to reconcile his burgeoning spirituality with his night job. "A friend pointed out much comedy was about degrading people. So I took a serious decision - to let my spiritual progress dictate what I'd do in the entertainment world."
Those years in the clubs, however, pointed to a new direction. "Bills I'd play on would often have a comedian and a band," he says. "Bluegrass bands often had an autoharp player, and the sight of it intrigued me. Later, I pawned my guitar. At the pawn shop, I saw an autoharp. A strong voice of guidance suggested I not take money for the guitar, but swap it for the autoharp."
Running this chorded zither through delay and reverb, he embarked on a new music - his attempt to translate the feel of meditational states in improvised sound. "I'd tune it to my favourite open tunings - peaceful tunings - and hang out in one chord, exploring different treatments."
Lea Cho of psych duo Blues Control first met Laraaji in 2004, and enlisted him for their 2011 project, FRKWYS Vol. 8. "There was a lot of laughter and camaraderie," she says of their four-hour session, " and each jam was transportive... it was like running a spiritual marathon."
It, in turn, seems to have rekindled interest in Laraaji's work. An early track, Unicorns In Paradise, has been unearthed for Light In The Attic's new I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990. And this month, Eno's All Saints label drops three archival releases including a remastering of 1987's Essence/Universe, as well as Celestial Music 1978-2011, that uncovers some of his home-recorded work only available on tapes sold from the sidewalk or via New York head shops.
Laraaji continues to make music, and also runs laughter workshops. An echo of his days as a comedian? Sure, he says, but it's best for everyone that he left the clubs behind. "My music never worked well there. It would put people into trance states. And people in a trance," he grins, "don't buy drinks."