Laraaji The Music Gallery, Toronto ON, October 16

Laraaji The Music Gallery, Toronto ON, October 16
Photo: Claire Harvie
The rain was pouring down outside last night (October 16) when Laraaji took the stage. He sat down on the floor between a zither and several pedals. His venue was the Music Gallery, a converted church on John Street in the shadow of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The "sanctuary," as it was called, was the perfect refuge from the torrent outside, with stained glass behind the stage and several bibles for each pew. In most ways it was an odd setting for a performer who has no ties to any Christian denominations, nor one who cares very much about Western religion. But then Laraaji hit a chord on his zither, and everything made sense. This was music for a sacred space. It didn't matter who was watching, whether from the audience or above.

Laraaji leaned heavily toward improvisation throughout his set, forsaking the recordings on the Brian Eno-produced Ambient 3 that made him famous in the English speaking world and instead absorbing the night's atmosphere. He performed solo at first, humbly sitting while playing his zither and leaning forward to modify delay chords and tones on his vast pedal board.

About half way through his set, he was joined by members of Not the Wind, Not the Flag on drums, upright bass and electric guitar, and kora player Diely Mori Tounkara. They ably filled out Laraaji's vision, expanding his work into an avant-garde jazz performance that fulfilled the festival's theme of "transculturalism." This was exciting, but it at times it took away from Laraaji, who remained quietly on the floor despite the chaos around him. At one point he left the stage for about five minutes, and his backing musicians took over a little too confidently, eliciting cheers from the crowd. They were in rockstar mode, and he wasn't.

It made for a show that was somewhat torn between a humble virtuoso and a great backing band. Still, the night was thrilling, and no one seemed to walk away unhappy. Laraaji is a man of the moment, and he made last night's moment his own.