"An Invitation To Seek Out The Infinite": The journey of Laraaji and the rediscovery of his lost 70s recordings - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

In a YouTube clip uploaded by Numero Group in 2018, singer, multi-instrumentalist and spiritual explorer Laraaji can be seen seated crossed-legged at a keyboard performing a lovely version of his song “All Of A Sudden.” The performance — taken from a 1986 broadcast of Celestrana, Laraaji’s meditation and spirituality-focused show on Manhattan public access television — is a perfect introduction to the core of his music and spiritual philosophy. Over a tiny, electronic drumbeat and glowing chords, Larraji sings a simple yet powerful song about rebirth and the impermanence of being. One moment we’re born and, in the grand scope of things, we live, die and are reborn again in the blink of an eye.

“All of a sudden, there’s another world, and another time, and another state of mind.”

Laraaji: "All of a Sudden" live on Celestrana, 1986

By 1986, Laraaji had already lived several creative lives here on earth. In a recent conversation, he doesn’t remember much about his early childhood in Philadelphia, but says that his body was born in Hahnemann Hospital and lived in Germantown. Once his family took root in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Laraaji discovered music and from there sound and performance would act as a vehicle for his spiritual journey. Around the age of 10, he took up violin and piano; his mother bought a piano for the house and invested in piano lessons. As he matured, Laraaji’s tastes grew to include a wide range of sound.

“I really dug music,” he says. “All kinds of music: jazz, R&B, folk. What was on my radar at the time was Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, The Beatles, Frankie Lymon, The Motown sound, Aaron Copeland, Liberace…”

His growing interest in music brought him to the famed HBCU Howard University, where he studied piano and music composition. After four years at Howard, he pivoted and moved to New York city to pursue acting and standup comedy, all the while keeping his eye on music. “I thought that if I did comedy, I could make some money like Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor, rent a nice apartment, buy a grand piano and get back to writing music,” he recalls. After performing in off-Broadway plays and working with the legendary Black talent agent Ernestine McClendon, Laraaji booked a role in Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 surrealist satire of race and the American advertising industry, Putney Swope. While his appearance in the film may have garnered him a bit of exposure, a chance encounter at a poetry reading would cause him to question the film and his own role in media and the world’s political and spiritual consciousness.

“By being in the movie, I was inspired to research meditation and other internal, exploratory practices,” Laraaji recalls. “I wanted get a firmer sense of my spiritual identity and my spiritual message in the mass media. After the movie was released, I was walking in lovely Harlem when I came upon a church that was sponsoring a poetry reading. So, just as I came in a brother was reading a poem…and he ended it with ‘…. and the n_____s who did Putney Swope should be offed.’ After that, I thought ‘how much responsibility should I take for my participation in the mass media?”

Having grown up in the Baptist church, Laraaji had a firm spiritual foundation, but it was yoga and meditation pushed him toward making a qualitative change in himself and his art. Living in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, Laraaji began a practice of sitting in meditation for 5 to 6 hours in the evenings. This nightly meditative practice opened Laraaji up spiritually. This awakened spiritual consciousness inspired him to begin cultivating a freer, more spontaneous approach to music-making.

“I began to sense that this spiritual core that all religions are relating to is everywhere/equally present and I could tap into it by stepping out of my personal identity for a while,” he says. “When I began connecting to that universal awareness, it influenced a shift in my music.”

Laraaji - Segue To Infinity

By the late 70s, Laraaji was playing  music on the streets of Park Slope, as well as recording distributing his own homemade cassette recordings. Playing electric autoharp and a small amplifier, Laraaji’s public performances around this time would open the opportunity for him to make his first handful of studio recordings like Celestial Vibration (released under the name Edward Larry Gordon) and Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance), a collaboration with ambient music pioneer Brian Eno that came about when Eno happened upon Laraaji performing in a park. While Day Of Radiance and Celestial Vibrations have rightfully gone on to be heralded as highly influential classics of the genre, there are still Laraaji recordings from this time period that have gone virtually unheard until recently.

Segue To Infinity compiles Celestial Vibration with six studio sessions from 1978 that were thought to be lost forever. Years ago, the tapes of these sessions were sold at auction and remained unreleased until Douglas Mcgowan of Numero Group negotiated for them to be purchased and prepared for reissue. In many ways, Segue To Infinity is a quintessential document of Laraaji’s music and approach at the time. Throughout the recordings he plays zither and kalimba through a small arsenal of phaser, flange and reverb pedals. Built upon looping waves of trance-inducing sound, the performances throughout the album are luminous and engrossing. Segue To Infinity captures the deeply intimate yet expansive dance that meditation and spiritual contemplation can ignite within the human soul. Laraaji’s performances here not only have the power to  suspend time, this music opens a pathway to the beyond.

When asked about the retrieval of these recordings and the intention behind the music that they contain, Laraaji sees it as all part of a grand, cosmic plan.

“It feels mystical, like a dreamworld sort of thing, but this album was meant to come together,” he says. “I feel that this is divinely orchestra. The term Segue to Infinity is a call to evolve into a more sustained, present time. It’s a call to segue out of linear / finite time, whether we do it through music, meditation, prayer or licorice-flavored jelly beans. It’s an invitation to seek out the infinite.”

Related Content
View All Related Content

No news added recently