How Laraaji Combines Folk Instruments With Effects Processors

Header photo by Vera Marmelo, used with permission.

A photo of Laraaji.
Laraaji. Photo courtesy of Edward Larry Gordon.

Few figures in the history of ambient music have had as long, illustrious, and consistent a career as Laraaji. The 79-year-old cuts a happy-go-lucky figure in a genre with a serious and stately reputation: bearded, perpetually clad in orange, blessed with a booming laugh known to anyone who’s heard his music or attended his “Laughter Meditation Workshops.”

Yet his music invokes a fearsome sense of awe. Since 1974, his primary instrument has been a modified Oscar Schmidt autoharp he swapped for a guitar in a Greenwich Village pawn-shop back when he was still an aspiring stand-up comic named Edward Larry Gordon.

After removing the chord bars and attaching a pickup to his instrument, he began running it through pedals to generate the washes of sound he’s known for today.

Laraaji's 1980 album Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, produced by Brian Eno.

Laraaji’s career breakthrough was 1980’s Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance, produced by Brian Eno as part of the epochal “Ambient” series but credited to Laraaji alone, his first release under the name. The story of how Eno encountered Laraaji busking in Washington Square Park has been retold in nearly all discussion of the latter’s work, as if to paint Laraaji as an outsider figure whom Eno brought from the fringes of the nascent ambient music to its center. But Laraaji was well aware of Eno’s early ambient experiments before Eno was aware of Laraaji—and of modern classical and post-Coltrane spiritual jazz, both of which inform the compositions on his 1978 pre-Eno debut Celestial Vibration.

Celestial Vibration has been reissued by Numero Group, along with three LPs of early, unreleased Laraaji recordings, as the revelatory new box set Segue To Infinity. The set makes clear how fully-formed Laraaji’s vision for ambient music was, even before he met the man who would codify the genre. It also makes clear how inventive he is in his use of instruments and gear.

Working mostly with his autoharp, a small electrified thumb piano called a kalimba, and an array of pedals, Laraaji crafts sweeping 20-plus-minute compositions that spread across full sides of vinyl, moving gracefully and easily between harsh strums and plucks and washes of distortion that obscure the physical effort involved in their creation. Speaking with Laraaji by phone from New York, one thing stands out about his choice of gear, perhaps not surprising given his roots as a busker: the premium he places on portability. “Being lightweight, compact, portable or self-contained is just an extension of my spiritual practice: being able to think small and laugh big.”

An excerpt from Laraaji's new Numero Group box set Segue To Infinity.

Laraaji was born in Philadelphia and studied composition and piano at Howard University in Washington D.C. Moving to New York after graduation with the intent of becoming a comedian and actor (he appeared briefly in Robert Downey Sr.'s 1969 film Putney Swope), the young Laraaji stumbled upon his musical destiny when trying to pawn an acoustic guitar. A “mystically intimate voice” advised him to swap the acoustic for an autoharp in the store rather than accept a meager $25 for the guitar, and Laraaji set to work converting his new toy into an electric instrument—and, by removing the chord bars, technically turning it into a zither.

“They do have electric autoharps, but they didn’t have them at the time I began exploring this instrument,” says Laraaji. “You can purchase electric autoharp pickups from Oscar Schmidt or Dusty Strings out on the West Coast [in Seattle]. You can take the chord bars off, then you can place the pickup under the strings.”

Laraaji began experimenting with the sounds he could coax from it, quickly discovering how to create the dense wash of phasers that would become a trademark of his sound. “The MXR Phase 90 and Phase 45 were the phasers I worked with during that time period,” he says. “Generally I like phasers because they move the sound, and they create a sense of motion within the performance.”

These two pedals—which Laraaji also prizes for their orangeness, matching the distinct wardrobe he’s worn since 1979—are responsible for many of the sounds on Segue To Infinity. For the three “Kalimba” tracks on the compilation, Laraaji used the DM-1 Delay Machine, the first of many effects pedals from Boss and an affordable alternative to pricey tape delay units like the Roland Space Echo. Running the metal-keyed thumb piano through the DM-1, Laraaji coaxed out sounds resembling drums and even funk rhythm guitars from the tiny instrument.

The modern kalimba is an electrified variation on Southern African thumb pianos such as the mbira, built and marketed by English ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey starting in the late ‘50s. Maurice White’s use of the instrument in Earth, Wind and Fire catalyzed its international popularity, and after seeing White play one on TV, Laraaji was fascinated. “I didn't think I could handle it,” Laraaji says. “I thought it required too much professionalism until I was in someone's home and they had a kalimba lying around and they put it in my hands and tried it. So I found [Hugh Tracey] and contacted him personally, and he set me up to get them wholesale.”

Laraaji used alto and celeste treble Hugh Tracey kalimbas during these sessions. Kalimbas frequently came with bottle caps loosely nailed to the body of the instrument to approximate the gourd resonators of its Southern African predecessor the mbira. Laraaji relates a legend: “The sound of the kalimba, which is usually played in honor of ancestors, is so sweet that it made the gods jealous. So the artists would make it sound a little raspy by putting on these buzzing bottle caps.” Perhaps to get as close to the gods as possible, Laraaji played kalimba models without caps on Segue To Infinity’s “Kalimba” recordings.

By the time Laraaji released Celestial Vibration in 1978 as Edward Larry Gordon, he was regularly busking in Washington Square Park, improvising for hours with his eyes closed. This is where Brian Eno comes in. When the two artists met in 1979, the English legend had just released the epochal Ambient 1: Music For Airports, and upon encountering Laraaji and his improvisations, he recognized a kinship between what the American was doing and what he was seeking to codify with his Ambient series. Eno slipped a note into Laraaji’s zither case, inviting him to the recording session that would result in 1980’s Day Of Radiance.

Laraaji played zither and hammered dulcimer on Day Of Radiance, the latter introduced to him by the folk musician Dorothy Carter. Eno augmented these instruments with rackmount effects from Eventide, much as he would do later as co-producer of U2’s records to lend the Edge’s guitar its distinctive church-bell luster. Laraaji wasn’t in the studio when Eno used these effects, so he’s unclear on exactly which ones appear on Day Of Radiance aside from the iconic H910 Harmonizer, the world’s first digital effects processor—and due to their lack of portability at the time, he wasn’t particularly keen to find out for his own means.

Working with Eno was still an invaluable experience. “Doing [Day of Radiance] deepened my respect for microphones,” he says. “Working with condenser microphones while still plugging into effects, I found that the microphones allowed me to capture a more high-end area of my sound. A combination of line-in and microphones is one way to get the fullest juice from an instrument.”

Day Of Radiance kicked off Laraaji’s 1980s, much of which he spent recording limited-run cassette albums whose compositions tended to sprawl over entire sides of tape, sometimes lasting over 40 minutes. Reissues of these releases by Leaving Records and Numero Group reveal music of at least comparable quality to Day Of Radiance and a return to his roots as a pianist through his use of a Casiotone MT-70 keyboardon Unicorns in Paradise and Vision Songs Vol. 1.

“That was my favorite touring instrument because it was battery-operated in addition to plugging into the wall, and it was very portable in size,” says Laraaji of the inexpensive home keyboard, whose small keys were designed with children in mind. “I could take it on an airplane with me, and it was very fun to play with. I'm impressed that people ask about the instrument, because at the time I was working with it, I considered it a mix between a toy and a serious gig instrument.”

Laraaji performs "All of a Sudden" on his NYC public access show Celestrana, 1986.

Another ‘80s development was a shift in Laraaji’s sound away from the percussive sound of his early recordings, achieved through using unconventional means such as hammering the zither with chopsticks, towards sustained sounds not instantly recognizable as any given instruments. One of his strongest ‘80s releases is Essence/Universe, whose two half-hour compositions were recorded with Washington, D.C. producer Richard Ashman and released on his Audion label. Essence/Universe was recorded in a similar manner to Day Of Radiance: Laraaji improvised on autoharp, then Ashman treated the recordings with layered time-based processing.

“It might’ve been two or three reverbs at once,” Laraaji says. “But when he presented that sound to me, I just went with it. It was a sound I could work with. I put my voice through it, too, and there are some chimes in there too. And I believe I used my fingers to strum the instrument to get that sound in motion.”

In more recent years, Laraaji has found easier, portable ways to replicate the sounds of the rackmount effects used by Eno and Ashman. His 2017 album Bring On The Sun is one of his lushest-sounding records, in part because of his use of the Eventide H9 Max pedal, which “allowed me to explore the high-end Eventide effects on a portable stereo effects box.” Much of this lush sheen also comes from Strymon pedals: BlueSky and BigSky for reverb and Mobius for modulation.

It’s fitting that Laraaji should finally find a way to incorporate the sounds of Day Of Radiance into his portable setup, taking the Eno sheen into his own hands. As crucial as the Eno co-sign might’ve been in positioning Laraaji at the center of the ambient universe, it’s also a bit of an albatross, entwining his work with that of a better-known collaborator despite Day Of Radiance being credited to Laraaji only.

Since Laraaji’s appearance on Light in the Attic’s I Am The Center compilation in 2013 and the subsequent flood of reissues and collabs with fellow astral travelers like Sun Araw, Dallas Acid and Arji OceAnanda, this has mitigated a bit, and it’s easier to gauge the scope and depth of Laraaji’s work. Segue To Infinity makes inescapably clear how prescient and fully-formed his early vision was. Far from representing an outsider spirited away into ambient music’s inner circle, his music has always existed at the heart and soul of the genre. He is the center.

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