Play It Forward: Laraaji Loves To Laugh

Nov 5, 2020
Originally published on November 6, 2020 3:07 pm

On the last edition of Play It Forward, All Things Considered's chain of musical gratitude, Brooklyn-based musician and producer Nick Hakim spoke about Philly-bred multi-instrumentalist Laraaji. In particular, he explained his love for Laraaji's healing sounds and ambient compositions.

"I am completely infatuated with the world that he has created and the amount of music that he has composed — it feels like an absolute stream of consciousness," Hakim said.

Laraaji says he found Hakim's praise touching. "It's always soothing and confirming to hear the voice of a person who's been influenced or impacted by the music that spirit has brought through me."

The artist spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about laughter, his latest album, Sun Piano, and an artist he's grateful for: Californian singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On his creative process

Being in the moment, and letting it flow without editing it in the moment, trusting and feeling and letting the feeling represented most truthfully by what comes through in a stream of consciousness: I feel like that's mostly what it's like, including the piano pieces I've just done. Not so much focus on what the structure's going to be, but letting the — [as] I call it — celestial structure spontaneously unfold.

YouTube

On crafting an album around the piano, the first instrument he ever learned

It feels like taking a dream off the shelf. I guess in the back of my mind, I'd fantasized about doing a piano album. Playing the piano in an empty church felt like a connection to my first experience of piano, which was in a church. ... I realized by the way people were responding to my music that this musical instrument, or my musical direction, was supporting people in having meaningful internal experiences — soothing, relaxing, nurturing, releasing, uplifting.

On being a comedian before becoming an ambient musician

Laughter has always been the juice of my life, growing up in a family that was very laughter-friendly. Somewhere in high school is when I began exploring comedy, writing comedy — and then into college, where I started performing with various comedy teams. I came from Howard University to New York, where I pursued stand-up. ... The laughter led me to practicing laughter meditation. When I heard about it, I thought it was quite unusual — to laugh when you get out of bed in the morning, or before getting out of bed, for 15 minutes with your eyes closed. [But] I tried that exercise in the early '80s after hearing about it and I thought, "How cool is this?"

On the artist he's grateful for, Mia Doi Todd

Mia Doi Todd is a musician that I've had an opportunity over the last three or four years to be in close contact with. Myself and my partner, we've traveled to California quite a bit, and a friend of a friend got us a place to stay so we wouldn't have to deal with hotel expenses; one of those places was at the home of Mia and her family. And so I got to know Mia's voice — soft, gentle — and got to know some of her album work. One of the songs that sticks out very clearly when I think about her is "My Baby Lives in Paris." ... Her sweet, silky, soft, patient, kind energy has transformed my experience of California.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's take a pause from the election news for a few minutes to talk about music, gratitude and laughter. It's time for Play It Forward, the series where musicians tell us about their work and the music that inspires them. Last time, Nick Hakim told us why he's thankful for a patriarch of New Age music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARAAJI'S "PENTATONIC SMILE")

SHAPIRO: Laraaji is 77 years old. His music is often used for meditation or yoga, and his two new albums return to his first musical instrument. They're called "Sun Piano" and "Moon Piano." I asked Nick Hakim what inspires him about this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK HAKIM: I am completely just infatuated with the world that he has created and the amount of music that he has just composed. And it feels like a absolute stream of consciousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARAAJI SONG, "HARE JAY JAY RAMA II")

SHAPIRO: And Laraaji joins us now from Harlem.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

LARAAJI: Yes, welcome forward.

SHAPIRO: Well, first, what's your reaction to what we just heard from Nick Hakim?

LARAAJI: Touching - and it's always soothing and confirming to hear the voice of a person who's been influenced or impacted by the music that the spirit has brought through me.

SHAPIRO: He described your music as feeling like a stream of consciousness.

LARAAJI: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you say it's the music that the spirit has brought through you. Does making it feel that way for you, like a stream of consciousness?

LARAAJI: Yes, I relate very well to that, being in the moment and letting it flow. I feel that that's mostly what it's like, including the piano pieces I've just done - being in the moment, not so much focused on what the structure is going to be but let - I call it celestial structure - spontaneously unfold.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARAAJI'S "SUNNY DAY HORSE")

SHAPIRO: And if I'm not mistaken, the piano was the first instrument you ever learned. So did building this album around piano music feel like a return to something from your childhood?

LARAAJI: It feels like taking a dream off of the shelf. And I guess in the back of my mind, I fantasize about doing a piano album. And playing the piano in a church, an empty church, felt like a connection to my first experience of piano, which was in a church.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARAAJI'S "SUNNY DAY HORSE")

SHAPIRO: Can you just paint a picture for us of that world? What decade are we in? What city are we in where you're this kid playing the piano in the church?

LARAAJI: Yes. It's about 1952 or '53 in Second Baptist Church of Perth Amboy, N.J. We had in our church people from the South who had emigrated from the South, so we had a lot of Southern energy in the church. And the preacher was more of, like, sometimes a very fiery preacher. But it was always centered in something that had to do with the Bible or with the character, the person called Jesus.

SHAPIRO: And so when did that musical experience tied to the Baptist Church become something tied to the spirituality that you practice today? What was that transition like?

LARAAJI: I realized by the way people were responding to my music that this musical instrument or my musical direction was supporting people in having meaningful internal experiences - soothing, relaxing, nurturing, releasing, uplifting.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARAAJI'S "PRANA LIGHT")

SHAPIRO: Laughing is a key part of your practice as a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARAAJI: ...And, again, inhaling. And let the entire breath be a laughter while we are incorporating our water body. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about the connection there?

LARAAJI: Well, laughter has always been the juice of my life in growing up in a family that was very laughter-friendly - uncles, aunts, cousins. So somewhere in high school, when I began exploring comedy, writing comedy and then into college, performing with various comedy teams...

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry. You were a comedian before or while you were a musician? I was totally unaware of that.

LARAAJI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Really?

LARAAJI: When I came from Howard University to New York where I pursued standup comedy - started out at...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LARAAJI: ...The Bitter End, Cafe Wha? and the Hootenanny and then got booked into Apollo Theater and started touring around some parts of the world with something called the Job Corps entertainment troupe.

SHAPIRO: And what made you think that could be incorporated into this sort of ambient, mystical music that you were making?

LARAAJI: The laughter led me to practicing laughter meditation. And when I heard about it, I thought that was quite unusual to laugh when you get out of bed in the morning or before getting out of bed, to laugh for 15 minutes with your eyes closed. And I tried that exercise in the early '80s, when I - after hearing about that. And I thought, how cool is this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW LAUGHTER MODE (THE WAY IN)")

LARAAJI: Laugh in your first breath. Let your first breath be flooded with laughter. Let laughter flood through all your breath. Laugh. Laugh a lot. Laugh often.

SHAPIRO: Laraaji, it's now your turn to tell us about a musician who you are thankful for. So who would you like to introduce us to?

LARAAJI: Well, Mia Doi Todd is a musician that I've had an opportunity over the last three or four years to be in close contact with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER LOVER")

MIA DOI TODD: (Singing) Come on, summer, give me a smile.

LARAAJI: Because of myself and my partner, we've traveled to California quite a bit. And a friend of a friend got us a place to stay so we wouldn't have to deal with hotel expenses. And one of those places was at the home of Mia and her family. And so I got to know Mia's voice - soft, gentle - and got to know some of her album work. And one of the songs that sticks out very clearly when I think about her is "My Baby Lives In Paris."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY LIVES IN PARIS")

TODD: (Singing) My baby lives in Paris far from the Eiffel Tower. In his arrondissement, 19 lilies flower.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Mia Doi Todd next. And so what would you like to say to her?

LARAAJI: I'd like to say (vocalizing).

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Is that a code? Is she going to know what that means?

LARAAJI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LARAAJI: And I say that her sweet, silky, soft, patient, kind energy has transformed my experience of California.

SHAPIRO: Well, Laraaji, it has been a pleasure talking with you.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

LARAAJI: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: His new albums are called "Sun Piano" and "Moon Piano." And we'll talk to Mia Doi Todd in the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY LIVES IN PARIS")

TODD: (Singing) Then past the Chinese market for bread and pain au chocolat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.