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Multi-instrumentalist  Laraaji  plays Peruvian cacho seed pods in his music room inside his Harlem apartment.

Multi-instrumentalist Laraaji plays Peruvian cacho seed pods in his music room inside his Harlem apartment.

Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

How Black Musicians Carved Out a Space in Ambient Music

We take a historical look at the relationship between Black music and spirituality, while speaking to contemporary Black musicians about the ways they’re using ambient music as a part of their respective wellness rituals.

The art of marrying music and spirituality is not the sole property of Black folks in America, but it is a key characteristic of the music that we make. Beset by the horrors of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the drug war, and mass incarceration, historically, Black people have been restricted in every aspect of public life at one point or another. Because of this repressive dynamic, it has been necessary that our spiritual practice and the music that supports it take on a fiercely personal character. To put it simply — spirituality is so deeply baked into the music that we make because it has to be.

Ambient music (and its sister genre, New Age) has long been used to support spiritual practices like meditation and yoga, due to their quiet, inconspicuous character. While these electronic sounds are not commonly associated with Black folks and our spiritual strivings, a handful of Black musicians in the U.S. and in the diaspora are currently making ambient music informed by their spirituality. How have Black musicians carved out space in ambient music, and how have they used this music as a vehicle for spiritual practice? The answer to these questions can be found by taking a look at the historical relationship between Black music and spirituality, while speaking to contemporary Black musicians about the ways they’re using ambient sounds as a part of their respective wellness rituals.

A Brief History of Ambient Music

1/1 (Remastered 2004)

Like any genre, ambient music was born out of the convergence of multiple streams of sociopolitical and cultural influence. While Brian Eno’s mid-to-late ‘70s masterworks Discreet Music and Ambient 1: Music For Airports are commonly pointed to as the origin of ambient music, the genre was not born in a vacuum. Instead, it emerged as the latest development in a musical continuum that included European serialism, the Egyptian composer Halim El Dahb’s magnetic tape experiments of the 1940s, musique concrete in the 1950s, and the work of American minimalist composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass and LaMonte Young in the 1960s. As LSD and psychedelic rock took hold of popular culture in the late 1960s, young people around the globe began to reassess many of the old ideas and mores that they had inherited from their parents. This generation would use sex, drugs, music, politics, and spirituality to challenge the old status quo in an attempt to carve out a new vision of society.

As the mass idealism of the ‘60s waned, progressive rock appeared to carry the sonic and conceptual ambitions of psychedelia into a new decade. As a conceptual and stylistic break from prog-rock, ambient music emerged as the quiet, contemplative contrast to prog’s pomp and bombastic virtuosity. The music that Eno helped pioneer in the mid-to-late ‘70s did not seek to wow audiences with impassioned performances or dexterous instrumentation. In fact, ambient music did not require active listening at all. Eno closed the original liner notes for Music For Airports by stating his intention for the music in clear and certain terms:

“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

American black Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.American black Gospel singer Mahalia JacksonPhoto Credit: Apic/Getty Images

Black spirituality — from the church to the charts, the clubs to the cosmos

There’s a section in Questlove’s 2021 documentary, Summer Of Soul,that features interviews and concert footage from gospel legends at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival: Edwin Hawkins, Professor Herman Stevens and the Voices of Faith, Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers, The Staple Singers, and Mahalia Jackson. This portion of the film is not only thrilling; it hints at the crucial socio-political, psychological, and spiritual role that gospel music has historically played in the lives of Black Americans. To this point, the writer Greg Tate explains how the unique social condition of Black Americans both led to the creation of gospel, and fed its continuing importance in our culture:

“There’s something very specific about what happened in Black America where I think the only place we could be fully expressive was in music, in these church rituals. Gospel is channeling the emotional core of Black people who are inside of this Christian experience and redefining it for themselves.”

By its very nature, spirit is intangible and inarticulable. Music, our most powerful tool for expressing the inexpressible, has been a part of human ritual and spiritual practice from the beginning. Despite this, Black folks are certainly not lacking in sounds that support the union of spirituality and music. Whether one considers the old religious field songs, spirituals, gospel, the blues, or the transcendent jazz played by giants like John Coltrane or Albert Ayler, spiritual music is a foundational part of our music and our identity as a people. In his 1963 magnum opus Blues People: Negro Music In White America, Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) charts the stylistic evolution of Black American music from the plantation to the avant-garde jazz of the day. Throughout the book, the key to Baraka’s analysis is his understanding that these stylistic shifts in the music were inextricably linked to the sociopolitical conditions of the people. Despite this fundamentally materialist formula, Baraka understood that the church and spirituality were an important tool for shaping the music and worldview of Black people dealing with the horrors of slavery. In the chapter “Afro-Christian Music and Religion,” Baraka points to the old spirituals and their use of biblical allegory as an expression of enslaved Africans' desires to be free:

“The religious imagery of the Negro’s Christianity is full of references to the suffering and hopes of the oppressed Jews of Biblical times. Many of the Negro spirituals reflect this identification: ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘I’m Marching to Zion,’ ‘Walk Into Jerusalem Just Like John,’ etc. ‘Crossing the river Jordan’ meant not only death but also the entrance into the very real heaven and a release from an Earthly bondage.”

Black musicians using ambient music as a vessel for spirituality

The Dance No.

While legalized slavery was abolished in 1865, we know that the brutal and unrelenting oppression of Black Americans didn’t end there. With anti-Blackness deeply baked into this country’s political, economic, judicial, and cultural fabric, the need for a liberatory impulse in Black music and spirituality has persisted. Speaking about his personal connection to ambient music, synthesist and composer Chaka Benson said that he began playing it after a divorce led him to branch out and experiment musically. Currently, Benson uses a modular synth rig to improvise rich electronic soundscapes that reward deep, open-minded listening. Like many Black folks, his spiritual journey began in the church where his grandfather was a deacon, as well as the values imparted to him by his parents.

“I came up Baptist and pretty strongly religious, but then my parents split,” Benson said. “They were in the Black Power movement and all that. So, I was raised with those sorts of values and it was an evolution after that.”

Like Benson, multi-instrumentalist Laraaji also grew up in the Baptist church. While living in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the early ‘70s, he discovered the book Richard Hittleman's Guide to Yoga Meditation, which demystified the meditation process and allowed him to experiment and develop his own meditative practice. After sitting in meditation for five to six hours a night, Laraaji began to experience a qualitative shift in his spiritual consciousness. Feeling a deep connection to an indescribable sense of universal awareness, Laraaji’s spiritual practice colored the spontaneous, ambitious new music that he made. The dreamy, ebullient sound that Laraaji began cultivating around this time can be heard on recordings like his watershed collaboration with Eno, Ambient 3 (Day of Radiance). Laraaji shared how his musical evolution harmonized with his spiritual journey, arming him with the tools to express his inner world through sound.

“I found my way into my own inner meditative experience around 1971 and ‘72, and was having experiences that clarified what I didn't understand about the Bible and Christianity. It also shifted my direction in music. Before that, music was just about having a time playing, hanging out with people, hitting groovy chords. But now, I noticed that music could be used to point to a transcendental realm that's bigger than a third and fourth dimension, and holding space for this transcendental realm became experimental and fun. My meditation experiences were things I couldn't really talk about. I would try to talk about it, but it didn't seem to communicate well as much as sound and music.”

By the early ‘80s, Laraaji was one of the few prominent Black musicians creating ambient music. Miles Davis had previously dipped into similar stylistic territory with 1969’s “In A Silent Way” and 1974’s “He Loved Him Madly.” But Laraaji albums like Day of Radiance, I Am Ocean, and Celestial Vibration were the standards for a Black, spiritually-focused interpretation of ambient music. These albums would pave the way for a young DJ/Producer from Philadelphia named King Britt, who has released ambient music under the monikers Moksha Black and Fhloston Paradigm. Britt explained that he got into ambient and new age while working as a teenage record buyer with strange and eclectic tastes.

“I was fresh out of high school and started working at Tower Records on South Street in Philly. In about six months, I became the 12” dance vinyl buyer for the store, and at the same time we had a new age section that no one wanted to work in. I became the buyer for that as well. My idea was to bring in more things like Ashra Temple, Manuel Gottsching, [Isao] Tomita and Eno-driven projects. Of course, I was introduced to Windham Hill, Private Music, etc. This was my intro to the world of New Age. As a synth nerd in the making, I was in heaven.”

Laraaji attends the Grace Wales Bonner : "A Time for New Dreams" at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.Laraaji attends the Grace Wales Bonner : "A Time for New Dreams" at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.Photo by Darren Gerrish/WireImage.

“I helped people’s spirits to soar”

Reflecting on his spiritual journey, Chaka Benson revealed that he sees music as a part of a holistic view of himself.

“Music’s a part of it. For me, it was kind of like prayer and acknowledgment of some kind of higher power that evolved into something else,” he said. “I started thinking about things a little bit differently and how it’s tied into the whole self. Mind, body and spirit. Trying to think of it as a three-legged stool, and if you can't keep one together, the other two will kind of fail.”

Citing John and Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago as examples, Britt said he considers Black American spiritual music and that of the African diaspora as part of a unified “common thread.” But where does ambient music fit into this rich web of sound and ritual connecting Black expression everywhere? Considering Laraaji’s thoughts on the feeling that his music stirs in his audience, the end result sounds similar to spiritual ecstasy typically conjured in the church or up on a jazz bandstand.

“In my youth, I remember wanting to be like Jesus Christ and do something in the world that would get people's spirits to soar. At that time, I wasn't thinking about music. I thought maybe I wanted to stand on a pulpit and scream my lungs out,” he said. “I couldn't become a politician. I couldn't become an athlete. I wasn't sure that I could become a good jazz musician. But when the idea of ambient, celestial music became what I was able to do, and was serving others the big resolution in my heart that I finally arrived at something I can do, I helped people's spirits to soar.”

Suggested listening

Laraaji - Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

Laraaji - Segue to Infinity

Alien Planetscapes (Doug Walker & Carl Howard) - Act of Reason

Chaka Benson - Live at Star's End

KMRU - glim

Lamin Fofana - Unsettling Scores