"If you can boogie with life, you can boogie with change…"
This line, from a recent song by Laraaji, has stuck with me this year as Covid 19 has brought unprecedented change to all societies. In a world where familiarity and predictability takes precedent, how are we going to adapt to these vast alterations, the new norm? So, Laraaji, how exactly does one '...boogie with change?'
‘Boogie..' says Laraaji on a video link up from his home in New York, '...It’s about continuing on, doing your thing, keeping your pace, keeping your rhythm...keeping your heart's vision. It's about maintaining your stiff upper lip. Boogie is another word for dance but as if you're both dancing and taking care of business as well.
Laraaji embraces change and, now in his seventy seventh year, has decided to put down his zither for a while to make a series of albums of piano music, starting with 'Sun Piano', released this month.
The album shows Laraaji fulfilling to a lifelong ambition to return the instrument he learnt to play as a child. He notes, "Matthew Jones at Warp suggested that I make this album about a year ago, then another close friend identified the church in Brooklyn to record in..." With everything in place Laraaji recorded enough material for three piano themed albums.
There are unexpected delights amongst the albums 12 tracks. The jazzy lilt of 'Flow Joy' suggests a feelgood film or television theme tune, 'This Too Shall Pass' is playful and charming, whilst 'Temple of New Light' is a thoughtful and delicately meditative moment.
Having now performed all of these improvised pieces, how does he feel when listening back to the completed album?
"I liked the sensitivity and the use of my classical training on the piano. I could also tell that I'd been exposed to more contemporary pop and jazz feelings".
"I knew that that the album would be something fresh and different and be full of surprises. Something that I'd be interested in listening to it over and over again. It feels as though the album is a gift to me as well as a gift to those who are listening."
FROM ENO TO DALLAS ACID
Back in 1980, Laraaji came to prominence after Brian Eno saw him busking on the streets of New York. Out of that chance meeting was born the album 'Day of Radiance' which immediately introduced him to a significantly wider audience.
I ask Laraaji if he had any prior knowledge of who the man was that had given him his contact details?
"Just vaguely, someone had mentioned his name, along with the name...(he pauses), of Robert Fripp about a month before. I really didn't have time to do any research of the artists though, so I really didn't know who he was.'
I suggest to him that there are similarities between his work with Eno and recent collaborations with like minded younger artists like Dallas Acid and Blues Control in that they seem to be the result of chance meetings or 'happy accidents'?
"Yes. On one level, I'm pleasantly surprised on one level about how these collaborations come about but I also feel that these things have been orchestrated by a higher visionary intention."
But how does he approach each of these projects? Does he have an plans beforehand or is he just hapoy to jam and see where it goes...?
"We're just happy to jam, however my zither is tuned in a commanding factor, but other than that, we really don't even talk about where we're going. We converse in music."
It is still the middle of June when I speak to Laraaji, lockdown is gradually easing in New York. As someone who mediates a lot, how is he finding the city that never sleeps being so quiet?
"It's almost like everyday is a Sunday" he jokes. " Frankly though, for 40 years I've been doing lots of travelling. Never really more than two weeks of vacation, so lockdown has been a blessing of a kind."
Throughout lockdown he not only played online concerts from his home but has also organised his remarkable 'Laughter Therapy' sessions online too. He is a busy man and he loves what he does.
Finally, having now recorded Sun Piano, as well as the two albums that are to follow it, does Laraaji have any other musical instruments that he wishes to tackle in the future? He pauses for a second before suggesting: "I may make a vocal album, maybe multi tracking myself. Or, I may make music with the Kalimba, the African thumb piano!"
Wherever Laraaji heads to next, it is clear that he will continue to take on challenges, enjoy risks and ultimately, make fabulous and thoughtful music. He will boogie with life. He will boogie with change.
Laraaji photos: Daniel Oduntan
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.