American musician Laraaji is one of new age's most distinctive, prolific, and charismatic artists. A master of multiple instruments, Laraaji primarily constructs his lengthy, meditative soundscapes from an electronically altered zither, hammered dulcimer, kalimba, synthesizers, piano, and other instruments, as well as natural sounds and vocals. Since first gaining exposure in the early '80s after a chance meeting with ambient innovator Brian Eno, who produced the landmark release Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980), Laraaji has released countless cassettes and albums, ranging from the mantra-like synth pop of Vision Songs, Vol. 1 (1984) to the extended drones of 1987's Essence/Universe. Additionally, he has collaborated with several electronic, experimental, rock, and dub musicians, including Japanese dub crew Audio Active (The Way Out Is the Way In, 1995), Bill Laswell (Divination's Sacrifice, 1998), and Philadelphia duo Blues Control (FRKWYS Vol. 8, 2011). In addition to his musical career, he is well known for his Laughter Meditation Workshops.
Laraaji was born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia in 1943. While growing up in New Jersey, he studied several instruments as well as vocals, and he attended Washington, D.C.'s Howard University on a music scholarship. He then moved to New York City with the intention of making a living as an actor and comedian. He began to study Eastern mysticism, which would change the course of his life. He found a zither at a local pawn shop and experimented with it, developing a unique sound through electronic enhancement and unconventional playing techniques. He released his first album, Celestial Vibration, under his own name in 1978 on a small label called SWN, and began busking on New York City sidewalks and in parks. Brian Eno happened to come across one of his performances and dropped a card into his instrument case. This led to Eno producing Gordon's first widely available release, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, issued on EG Records in 1980. Gordon's first album under the name Laraaji, the LP featured hypnotic, gamelan-like rhythms played on hammered dulcimer, as well as calmer ambient pieces for zither.
As a result of the album's success, Laraaji's compositions became in demand from meditation groups. He released numerous cassette tapes featuring extended, continuously flowing pieces, as well as occasional avant-garde synth pop devotional songs, as on 1984's Vision Songs, Vol. 1. He expanded his spiritual studies, practicing under the tutelage of Swami Satchidananda and Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati. He collaborated with Sound Healers Association founder Jonathan Goldman, who released their Celestial Realms cassette on his Spirit Music label in 1986. Laraaji's next vinyl release was Essence/Universe, produced by Robert Ashman and released on Audion Recording Company in 1987. Laraaji contributed two pieces to Music for Films, Vol. 3, released by Eno's Opal Records in 1988. Another label associated with Eno, All Saints Records, began releasing Laraaji's music in the early '90s, starting with 1992's Flow Goes the Universe, which was co-produced by Michael Brook. Laraaji then participated in supergroup Channel Light Vessel, along with Bill Nelson, Roger Eno, Kate St. John, and Mayumi Tachibana. The quintet released Automatic on All Saints in 1994, followed by Excellent Spirits (without Tachibana) in 1996. During this time, Laraaji also collaborated with Japanese dub group Audio Active on the 1995 album The Way Out Is the Way In, and released Islands, a split CD with Roger Eno recorded live at a music festival in 1989.
Laraaji's solo album Cascade was released by the Relaxation Company in 1997. The following year, Laraaji played zither on Sacrifice, an album by Bill Laswell's ambient project Divination, issued by Meta Records. Laraaji collaborated with Jonathan Goldman again for two more albums, Celestial Reiki (2000) and Celestial Reiki II (2002), both on Spirit Music. He recorded the 2001 album My Orangeness on a farm in Italy, with several local musicians. Laraaji collaborated with Phil Gruber on The Song of Indra, and with Nadi Burton on Sonic Sketches, both in 2006. Otherwise, most of his albums during this decade were self-released solo CD-Rs. Universal Sound (a sublabel of Soul Jazz Records) reissued his debut release Celestial Vibration on CD and LP in 2010.
In 2011, Laraaji's music reached a new audience when he worked with Philadelphia-based experimental rock duo Blues Control, resulting in the eighth volume of RVNG Intl.'s FRKWYS collaborative series. The acclaimed album led to a resurgence of interest in Laraaji's back catalog, and several of his recordings were re-released. In 2013, All Saints packaged Flow Goes the Universe and The Way Out Is the Way In as the double-CD Two Sides of Laraaji, in addition to issuing Celestial Music 1978-2011, a generous anthology of excerpts from his self-released tapes as well as highlights from his more widely known albums and collaborations. A 12" EP of remixes by artists such as Sun Araw and Motion Sickness of Time Travel appeared on All Saints in 2014. In 2015, Leaving Records issued three of Laraaji's early cassettes as All in One Peace, and German label Glitterbeat reissued Ambient 3: Day of Radiance.
In 2016, a collaborative double live album by Laraaji and Sun Araw titled Professional Sunflow was issued by W.25TH, an imprint of reissue label Superior Viaduct. Later in the year, Leaving Records issued Laraaji's 1984 cassette Om Namah Shivaya on orange vinyl, in addition to releasing Be Still and Glow, another triple cassette package. Two Laraaji releases, Sun Gong and Bring on the Sun, appeared in September of 2017. In early 2018, Vision Songs, Vol. 1 was given a wide release for the first time, courtesy of Numero Group. Arrive Without Leaving, a collaboration with Arji Oceananda and Dallas Acid, appeared on Flying Moonlight Records near the end of the year. Celestial Realms was reissued on vinyl by Morning Trip in early 2019, and triple-LP The Onrush of Eternity, a dub collaboration with log(m) (aka Legion of Green Men), appeared on Invisible, Inc. around the same time. Laraaji then collaborated with Merz and Shahzad Ismaily on an album titled Dreams of Sleep and Wakes of Sound. He then returned to his first instrument with the 2020 solo album Sun Piano. ~ Paul Simpson