Cult Classic: Laraaji: Vision Songs Volume 1.

During a career that has spanned five decades, American multi-instrumentalist Laraaji has released around thirty albums and countless collaborations. Many of these albums were self released by Laraaji on cassettes, and feature his unique and inimitable genre-melting sound. This best described as a fusion of ambient, avant-garde, experimental and psychedelia which is hypnotic, mesmeric and meditative which features the zither, Mbira and piano. However, Laraaji is best known as a zither player, and as the man who transformed and reinvented this traditional instrument.

Having bought a zither in a local pawn shop in the early seventies, Laraaji set about converting it into an electronic instrument. This he succeeded in doing, to the bemusement of traditionalists who saw the zither as an acoustic instrument. Soon, that was no longer the case, as Laraaji began experimenting and playing his newly adapted zither like a piano. Nobody had ever seen this before, not even Brian Eno.

He and Bill Laswell were walking through Washington Square Park, when they came across Laraaji sitting cross-legged on top of a blanket with his eyes closed, played his zither using the open tunings he favoured. Brian Eno watched for a while and realising he was watching a talented musician wrote a message, which he left for Laraaji. 

The next day, Brian Eno and Laraaji met and discussed ambient music and electronics. Three weeks later, Laraaji, recorded Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) at Apple Studios, in Green Street, New York. Once the album was recorded,  Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) was released later in 1980. This album it was hoped would launch Laraaji’s career, and transform the busker’s fortunes.

While Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) was released to critical acclaim, and is nowadays, considered a cult classic, it didn’t change Laraaji’s life. Three years after Brian Eno ‘discovered’ Laraaji, the zither player back self-releasing albums, including Vision Songs Volume 1, which was just the latest chapter in the Laraaji story, which began in 1943.

Laraaji was born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia in 1943, and at early age, moved with his family to New Jersey. That was where the future Laraaji studied violin, piano, trombone and took singing lessons. At high school, he played in the school band and orchestra. Music was part of his life, and he was exposed to an eclectic range of music.  

His family attended the local Baptist church, where Larry heard choral and gospel music, as well as negro spirituals. At home though, he heard very different music.

Larry sat and absorbed everything from jazz to R&B and rock ’n’ roll. However, it was the great piano players that especially inspired Edward Larry Gordon, including Oscar Peterson, Fats Domino and Ahmad Jamal. Over the next months and years, Laraaji spent much of his time listening to music. Still, though, he continued to play the violin, piano, trombone and sang. Music was his passion and it was no surprise that having graduated from high school this talented multi-instrumentalist decided to study music.

Having won a scholarship to study piano and composition, Larry headed to one of the most prestigious universities in America, Howard University, in Washington DC. During the next few years, Larry totally immersed in music, and where he first discovered marijuana in his second year and also psychedelic drugs. They would play a part in opening Larry’s consciousness during his spiritual awakening, while he would later use marijuana as an aide to the creative process. Before that, his friend and family were sure that Larry was destined to pursue a career in music. However, that wasn’t the case.

After graduating from Howard University, Larry decided not to pursue a career in music, which was a huge surprise to his friends, including this he had studied alongside. Instead, Larry decided to pursue a career as a standup comic. His love of comedy began in college, and when he left University, Larry and his comedy partner decided to head to New York to audition at the Bitter End, who regularly held talent shows. 

This was where Bill Cosby’s comedy career began. For an aspiring comedian, the Bitter End seemed the perfect place to launch their new career. However, the night Larry and his comedy partner were meant to make their debut, his partner never turned up. After being left in the lurch, Larry had not option to make his debut as a solo artist. He was well received, and this was the start of his new comedy career. Soon he became a regular on New York’s thriving  comedy circuit. However, comedy wasn’t the only career Larry had.

Through his exploits as a comedian, Larry came to the attention of Ernestine McClendon, who was a respected theatrical agent. She took Larry under her wing and guided his nascent career. Soon, she was sending Larry to auditions, and before long, he found himself appearing on television commercials, theatre and even films. 

One of these films that Larry appeared in was Putney Swope, which was a comedy directed by Robert Downey which examined the of role race and advertising in America. Putney Swope was very different to anything Larry appeared in before, as much of the film was improvised. This which was new to Larry, but something he coped with admirably in the film. 

In Putney Swope,  the chairman of an advertising company dies, and the firm’s executive board must elect someone to fill the vacant position. However, each member, is unable to vote for himself, and Swope who was the token African-American on the board is unexpectedly elected chairman. He decides to do things his way, and fires all the staff, apart from a lone white employee. Swope then renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc. and decides that he will no longer accept represents companies selling tobacco, alcohol and war toys. The film must have made a big impression on Larry, because when Putney Swope was released it inspired him to look at the role of the mass media. Looking for answers, Larry read books and learnt to meditate.

To help him, he turned to teachers who taught Larry how to meditate properly He soon was practising meditation and calisthenics. Larry was also using piano exercises as an outlet which was  how he discovered spontaneous music. Everything was improvised, off-the-cuff and experimental. Straight away, Larry realised the possibilities were endless. However, meditation was key to this. Soon, Larry was starting to realise just what he could do with music and art now that he had discovered meditation. Discovering meditation was akin to the first part of Larry’s spiritual awakening. Before long, the next part of Larry’s Meditation spiritual awakening took place.

Around 1974 or 1975, Larry found himself was living not far from JFK airport, and decided to go out for a walk in the evening. On his return home, he started hearing what he describes as: “the music of the spheres.” This was akin to a cosmic symphony where the music was joyous and celebratory. Larry became part of the music and was at one with the music. The whole experience had a lasting effect and was his spiritual and cosmic awakening. 

Suddenly, he understood things that had previously puzzled him. Things now started to make sense after what Larry refers to as: “a trigger for a cosmic memory.” It was as if Larry had been enlightened. However, he wanted to know more about what had happened, and decided to embarked on a course of study. 

To further understand what had happened to him, Larry embarked upon a study of Vedic teachings. Part of the Vedic teachings is that the yogis hear music in layers. When Larry heard this, he realised this what he had experienced and was why he was able to describe the music so vividly. His teachers told him that he had reached such a high level of consciousness that he was now able to see things differently from most people. It seemed his spiritual and cosmic awakening was almost complete. Now he decided that he wanted to recreate the music that he heard that night near JFK Airport.

At last, Larry was able to put his musical education to good use. He had always played music, even when he was working as a comedian and actor. Latterly, he’d been playing the Fender Rhodes, but was fed up having to transport such a heavy instrument. One night as he was preparing to go onstage, he told his “cosmic ear” that he would: “like a lighter instrument to share his musical consciousness with the world.” 

A few days later, Larry found himself in a pawn shop where he was ready to pawn his guitar when suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice told Larry to swap his guitar for a stringed instrument in the shop window. This he realised was an autoharp, which he was unable to play. However, Larry decided to swap his guitar for the autoharp, and he after that, he headed home, where he was determined to master this new instrument.

When Larry took the instrument home, he tuned it to his favourite piano chords and open guitar tunings. The effect this had, was to return it to what was essentially a zither, whose roots can be traced back the ancient, traditional instrument the kithara. Gradually, through a process of experimentation, Larry discovered what the autoharp was capable of. Then when he added an electric pickup, this was a game-changer, and he discovered that the possibilities were endless. He was able to begin creating the music that he had heard that fateful night, albeit with a little help from a friend. 

Not long after Larry begin playing the autoharp, he was strumming and plucking it like a guitar which  seemed to him the way to play the autoharp. That was until he  met Dorothy Carter who was a hammered dulcimer artist and encouraged Larry to play his autoharp with hammers. The other thing Dorothy did, was invite Larry to the Boston Globe Music Fest where he met another innovator.

At the Boston Globe Music Fest, Larry met Steven Halpern who is one of the pioneers of New Age music. Meeting Steven exposed him to music that he never knew existed, and changed Larry’s way of thinking. He realised that music didn’t need to follow the structures that he had been taught as a child and at university. Music didn’t need to have a beginning, end or even a melody. Instead, it could be a freeform stream of consciousness. Larry also learnt that there was always room for experimentation and improvisation within music. For Larry this changed his approach to music. Inspired and confident in his ability to play the autoharp, Larry was ready to make his debut. 

The old saying that the world is a stage proved to be the case for Larry, who made his debut as a busker on the streets of New York in 1978. He had released his first album Celestial Vibration in 1978, which he hoped would introduce his music to a wider audience. 

A year later, Larry was still busking and had self-released his sophomore album Lotus-Collage in 1979. However, he was busking abet in a different location. This proved fortuitous, while other said it was fate.

Larry was now busking in Washington Square Park and on that fateful day, he sat on top of a blanket, cross-legged and with his eyes closed, played his zither using the open tunings he favoured. As a result, he never saw Brian Eno standing watching him play. The man who many called The Godfather of ambient music was transfixed as he watched Larry play. Little did Brian Eno realise when he walked through the park with Bill Laswell that he would come  across a fellow innovator. Recognising the potential that Larry had, Brian Eno wrote a message on a piece of paper which Laraaji as he was now calling himself found later.

The next day Brian Eno met with Laraaji and the two men spoke about ambient music and electronics. Straight away, they got on and three weeks Laraaji, was heading to Apple Studios, in Green Street, New York where he recorded Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance).

When Laraaji arrived at Apple Studios, he brought with him his zither  and dulcimer, and five tracks that he had composed. With Brian Eno taking charge of production the five tracks that became Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) were recorded, which was the latest instalment in this groundbreaking series.

Later in 1980, Laraaji was preparing to release Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance), which it was hoped would launch his career and transform him from an underground artist to a successful experimental musicians. The only worry was in the post punk days, the snarling angry young gunslingers in the music press weren’t exactly accommodating to music that didn’t fit their particular agenda. However, some critics gave Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) a chance, and realised that this was a groundbreaking album where elements of ambient, avant-garde, dub, electronica, experimental, folk, New Age and world music were combined by Laraaji on this future cult classic.

Despite the critically acclaimed reviews of Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance), the album wasn’t a huge success and didn’t transform Laraaji’s career. It was disappointing for Laraaji who over the next few years, continued to record new music, often late at night in his flat not far from Columbus University which was where a young man called Barrack Obama was studying.

In 1981 Laraaji returned with his new album, I Am Ocean which was released on the Celestial Vibration label, and was the much-anticipated followup to Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance). However, it failed to make much of an impression upon its release. Later in 1981, Laraaji was back to self-releasing his next album Unicorns in Paradise. This was something he would do regularly throughout his five decade career. 

A year later, when Laraaji released Rhythm N’ Bliss in 1982, it was on the Third Ear label. This was the start of a period when Laraaji was a prolific artist, who often self-released his own music on cassettes which are now sought after. 

1984 was one of the most prolific years of Laraaji’s career. He released a triumvirate of albums including Om Namah Shivaya on the Celestial Vibration label and self-released Sun Zither. However, one of the most important albums he released at this period was his epic album Vision Songs Volume 1.

Unlike previous albums, which featured freeform songs where Laraaji enjoyed the opportunity to improvise, Vision Songs Volume 1 featured eighteen gospel inspired songs where he wrote and sang the vocals. This was a stylistic departure from Laraaji, who had released his debut album Celestial Vibration six years previously in 1978. By 1984, Laraaji who was a talented and versatile multi-instrumentalist who wasn’t afraid to innovate.

Laraaji who already had an array of instruments including a zither, dulcimer and Mbira, was keen to try out the new musical technology including a Casio MT-70 synth which was meant to replicate the sound of a Hammond organ. It also came with equipped with a drum machine which Laraaji knew he could put to good use Vision Songs Volume 1.

Just like previous albums, Laraaji played all of the instruments on Vision Songs Volume 1, and was recordist and producer. Although it was just five years since he had recorded Ambient 3 (Day Of Radiance) with Brian Eno. By then he was used to recording on his own, and often transformed his flat into a makeshift studio. That was where he setup his zither, dulcimer, Mbira and the latest addition to his musical arsenal the Casio MT-70 synth. These instruments he recorded onto a multitrack recorder. When it came time to record the vocals, Laraaji laid them down without using a vocal booth that were a feature of all the studios in New York. Eventually, the eighteen tracks on Vision Songs Volume 1 were complete.

Now Laraaji set about having cassette tapes of Vision Songs Volume 1 produced, which came complete with the track listing. Laraaji had even included details of how to contact him at PO Box 227 Cathedral Station New York, NY 10025. The forty-one year old musician was also trying to promote his career and what was later hailed as his Magnus Opus, Vision Songs Volume 1.

Laraaji had surpassed himself with Vision Songs Volume 1, which what was an album of otherworldly devotional synth pop that had been recorded spontaneously. Just like previous albums, everything was off-the-cuff and Laraaji did’t record countless takes in a search for sonic perfection. That wasn’t his way as he sought inspiration during endless late-night recording sessions that sometimes lasted into the following morning. 

During these sessions, Laraaji deployed his zither which were use to create the melodies. Other times, he used drum machine on Casio MT-70 synth, which click, clips and cracks. However, there was a limit to the drums patterns available within the Casio MT-70 synth, so when Laraaji found the right one, he decided to stick to it. The drums are part of an arrangement which feature Laraaji’s zither, hammered dulcimer and the Casio MT-70 synth which was meant to replicate a Hammond organ. It comes close on the beautiful, cerebral and spiritual sounding I Can Only Bliss Out (F’Days) which showcased Laraaji’s skills as a lyricist.

That is the case from the mystical mantra Hare Jaya Jaya Rama I which opens Vision Songs Volume 1 where Laraaji sings about awareness and enlightenment on what was his first ever gospel inspired lyrical album. That Laraaji decided to record such an album was no surprise after spiritual awakening a few years earlier. Unlike many musicians, he wasn’t about to hide his spiritual side, and it features throughout the album.

Vision Songs Volume 1 was the first Laraaji album that didn’t feature lengthy instrumentals, and it turned out that Laraaji was a talented lyricist who was capable of writing cerebral, spiritual and thought-provoking lyrics. These songs were properly structured which was to be expected from someone who had graduated with a degree in music. The lyrics were delivered by Laraaji’s secret weapon…his voice.

It was a surprise to many people that Laraaji was also a talented vocalist, as they hadn’t heard him sing until Vision Songs Volume 1. He had the ability to breath life, meaning, emotion and a spiritual quality to the songs on Vision Songs Volume 1, as his vocals veered between emotive, heartfelt, hopeful, impassioned and soulful. There was a spiritual quality to songs like Hare Jaya Jaya Rama II, We Shall Be Lifted, Allah. It’s a similar case with Om Namah Shivaya which is uplifting and rousing, while the addition of the Casio MT-70 synth on Today Is This Magic Quality manages to replicate the sound of a church organ on another spiritual sounding song. Often, Laraaji’s vocals were spirited, impassioned and sung with a clarity and lucidity that would’ve been the envy of many more experienced vocalists. So were some of the catchy songs on Vision Songs Volume 1 which weren’t short of a hook. Laraaji seemed to be a natural when it came to songwriting.

He was also a natural singer and storyteller whose performances were captivating. Sometimes, there’s a tender to his vocals, while other times there’s a warmth and hope in his voice on All Of A Sudden, which is an eight-minute epic about the birth of what he Laraaji believed to be a new era of awareness. However, Laraaji the future laughter meditation guru reveals not just a playfulness, but his sense of humour earlier in his career he used to great effect. This humour is apparent on Cosmic Joe, and later, on the final part of a trilogy Is This Clear? III which closes Vision Songs Volume 1.

Having released Vision Songs Volume 1, Laraaji in 1984, Laraaji was back selling cassettes of the album wherever he played live. Those who bought Vision Songs Volume 1 had no idea of the importance of this groundbreaking gospel inspired lyrical album. Vision Songs Volume 1 marked the debut of Laraaji as a lyricist and vocalist, and showed a new side to this talented and versatile multi-instrumentalist.

On Vision Songs Volume 1, Laraaji combines avant-garde, gospel, synth pop and new age plus elements of ambient, experimental and even occasional hints of dub, psychedelia and rock. Laraaji had eschewed lengthy freeform instrumentals for a much more focused album which featured traditional songs, albeit songs that featured a degree of spontaneity. This was one of Laraaji’s trademarks during the early years of his long career which seemed to have stalled.

Sadly, due to Laraaji’s decision to self-release Vision Songs Volume 1, it was another album that slipped under the musical radar. The majority of record buyers never got the opportunity to discover an album that was variously beautiful, cerebral, dreamy, ethereal, hypnotic, meditative, melancholy, mesmeric, mystical, soulful, spiritual, thought-provoking and uplifting. However, only a lucky few who bought Laraaji’s tapes of Vision Songs Volume 1 when he self-released the album in 1983. It was a case of what might have been.

Thirty-seven years later, and sadly, Laraaji is still one of music’s best kept secrets. However, over the last few years, Laraaji’s music has started to find a wider audience. This includes Vision Songs Volume 1, which is regarded by many as Laraaji’s Magnus Opus, and an album that will make music fans wonder why he’s still one of music’s best kept secrets?

Cult Classic: Laraaji: Vision Songs Volume 1.


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