The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance

Graham St John
New York/London: Routledge, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-415-87696-4 (hardcover) 978-0-203-84787-9 (electronic)
RRP: $103.00 (hardcover), $103.00 (electronic)

Rupert Till

University of Huddersfield, UK

Psytrance is not well known or widely understood. The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance, edited by leading writer in the field of electronic dance music (EDM) culture Graham St. John, is the first book to cover this form in any detail. To many, psytrance is lumped together using ill-defined journalistic terms that have little meaning or substance such as “dance music”. This collected volume attempts to unpack the term and explore the field in a more rigorous fashion.

St John bookends the volume; his introduction provides a useful assessment of writing on psytrance, whilst providing a contextual framework. He makes a strong case for the need for the collection and prepares the ground for the variety of different approaches that follow. The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing with the roots of the music in Goa trance. This begins with Luther Elliott’s proto-trance history. It makes a strong case that musical roots of psytrance grew not principally from Goa but originated in sixties counter-culture, Ibiza, house music and acid house. Its description of the development of Goa trance is rather vague, lacking specific dates, names and interviews with key players. Fortunately this is covered in the next two chapters and in any case this is an interesting and well-paced first chapter.

Anthony D’Andrea next provides a spicy taste of the nature of the Goa full moon party scene. Like several sections of the collection, it prioritises the opinions of the ‘authentic’—the scenesters, the faces, the core members—and allows the flavour of the narrative to be determined by self-appointed spokespeople. Indeed many of the writers can be accused of this, related it seems to their immersion in psytrance culture. In some cases the writers have led a psytrance lifestyle and have become interested in writing about their passion. This provides insider knowledge, without which this book would lack credibility, but inevitably means it sometimes becomes evangelical, treating internal psy-perspectives as “truth” and outsider perspectives as “false”.

Arun Saldanha provides the final chapter in the Goa section and manages to avoid this trap. His well-written account describes the myriad influences on the Goa scene as a meeting point of multiple substreams, a developmental crossroads rather than a point of origin. His use of Derrida’s ghost metaphor elegantly blends sociology and ethnography and embeds into psytrance the term ‘communitas’, which returns many times to form a key focus of the book.

The sequel to the Goa section discusses globalisation, bridging the gap between Goa and the growth of psytrance in Europe. In fact it is the well-defined and well-written specificity of this chapter by Hillegonda Rietveld that clarifies the origins of European psytrance and its relation to Goa. It names specific recordings and artists, dates and places, building on the earlier chapters which were rather more freeform, reflecting perhaps a Goa trance state of mind. In particular this mature chapter gives credit to various sources often overlooked in such histories, such as Electro Body Music (EBM) and KLF.

Charles De Ledesma goes on to explore the growth of psytrance in London. There is strong data here and interviews with key players, but this is inevitably a very London-centric ethnography, rather more local than the claimed UK coverage. Robin Lindop casts a wider net, defining and discussing the music itself, as well as the culture surrounding it. However, without a use of technical musical terminology, this is rendered a little vague. De Ledesma does critically engage with the ways in which EDM sometimes defines itself as “authentic” in opposition to the “mainstream”, but then goes on to claim that “psytrance is exemplary”. It is similarly contradictory over the subject of genre purity.

Like the following chapter by Joshua Schmidt, Lindop provides some paradoxes in his writing, but overall provides useful information to the emerging wider narrative. Schmidt uses pairs of dichotomies to critically analyse Israeli trance. Again this is a view from the inside of a scene, shown when it condemns as “chronic” the media’s description of Israeli desert trance mesibot as “drug parties”, although it is clear from an external perspective why that description might be used. However Schmidt’s work is succinct, well structured and provides a convincing argument.

The last of the trilogy of sections weaves in and out of a vague focus on liminal culture. Botond Vitos begins by providing a rare insight into Czech psytrance, although his argument is a little circular, perhaps due to a closeness to interlocutors who had recently and regularly taken LSD, a proximity which he tries to stretch away from instead of embracing. The fact that some of his interviewees described their activities using his own theories of DemenCZe shows a rather acid splintered blurring of boundary between the emic and etic. Chiara Baldini’s approach is far bolder and more successful, making her position as party organiser clear and embracing material and references with a voice clearly internal to her and to psytrance. She draws upon the psy-spirit of Dionysus in an effective correlation with her own experiences.

The next two chapters, by Jenny Ryan and Alex Lambert, discuss the relationship of the web to psytrance from the perspectives of San Francisco’s and Australia’s Oztrance community. The difficulty with this work is the use of individual web-posts to represent the views of the group, as there is often inevitably an opposing view that contradicts any point. However the significance of the web to this scene merits such attention, which is especially well presented in Lambert’s cultural circuit.

The last dance is reserved for Graham St. John, who applies his experience and skill as an EDM commentator to both reference other chapters and make significant points of his own, providing an appropriate climax to the narrative. St. John’s final chapter is the strongest in the book. It largely focuses on festival culture and on those technomads who travel from festival to festival, making psy-trance a lifestyle choice rather than a part-time activity. This is a recurring feature of the book, which focuses on the intensely committed few, rather the many casual psytrancers. This focus on festival culture feels unbalanced. In many cases the authors show their partisan attitudes and don’t so much struggle to maintain an objective attitude to their subject, as willingly submit to a pro-psytrance attitude. It is unsurprising that some chapters are written by relatively inexperienced researchers, rather than late career researchers with several books under their belts. This gives the work a currency and directness and although one could criticise the text in terms of clarity of emic or etic approaches, this would ignore the benefits that the writers’ proximity to psytrance culture provides.

There have been many studies that have pointed out the difficulties Western society faces in a fractured world that struggles to resolve issues of community, identity, belonging, hope and the loss of popular rituals that address such issues. Studies addressing cultures that seem to be orientated around solutions to these issues, or new approaches to them, inevitably raise difficulties, may be controversial or inconclusive and in a post-meta-narrative world, fail to provide simple answers. However this book’s approach to issues such as communitas provides an engaging and novel approach to such problems.

Overall then The Local Scenes and Global Cultures of Psytrance provides a valuable insight into a world-wide movement which has had comparatively little study so far. I am no novice to the world of psytrance, but this book provided a wide range of interesting, thought-provoking and informative detail, and is one I can highly recommend as essential reading to any researchers interested in EDM culture.