Goa: 20 Years of Psychedelic Trance
Dead Sea and Arava Science Center; Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel)
A few years ago I was in Thailand to give a talk at a conference in Bangkok on the “post-Zionist performance of Israeliness” among Israeli psytrancers in Thailand. I had the pleasure of meeting Robert A. Leonard, an American professor of forensic linguistics, who turned out to be an old friend of my doctoral advisor as well as a founding member and bassist of Sha Na Na, the rock and roll doo-wop group who (wearing satin gold sweat suits) opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. When I asked Leonard “how does it feel when you’re making history?”, he responded that when people “make history”, they are usually too busy doing it to fully notice the magnitude of what they are achieving. Afterwards, what one recalls often overlaps and gets filtered through the authorized account of the event. This notion came to mind after reading Goa: 20 Years of Psychedelic Trance. This coffee table book, elegantly published and stylishly edited, ventures to capture and convey the romance and excitement that accompanied the expansions of Goa psytrance music and culture in the past few decades.
Goa is an engaging book, lavished with original artwork and vivid photography depicting psychedelic trance events from across the globe and offering readers a portrayal of life in full HD. The forty-two chapters, over 500 color photos and a companion DVD featuring an “unreleased” montage of Goa music and parties provide a well-informed account of the phenomenal Goa psychedelic trance social movement from its early days in Goa to its (r)evolutionary proliferation “right across the planet, going through every culture and social class as well as every spiritual, religious, political, sexual, musical, philosophical and economic orientation”(14). The period indicated in the sub-title (1990–2010) does not refer to specific dates or precise events, nor does it entirely account for ‘the story of psytrance’. Rather, during these two decades, the Goa movement underwent a process of formalization with parties transitioning from being a kind of casual “family” (87) activity involving Goa-based hippy-freak-New-Age-hedonist-global travelers, into a quasi-legitimate and internationally recognized brand of music entertainment catering to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.
Golden Goa of the 1990s is stereotypically depicted in idyllic retrospect—the drugs were pure and abundant and intended for mind expansion, the parties bastions of free love, raw creativity and cosmic union. The novelty of digitally tempered bass lines running at the speed of 145 BPM meant that psytrance commanded a kind of devotional aura among its listeners, particularly when consumed in cozy post-colonial locales and enhanced with chemically induced altered states of consciousness. Hardcore scene affiliates professed to be channeling “stone-age shamanism” (65) into a redefined “ancient tribal ritual” (20) whose goal was no less than to unify the planet. Uncertain as to how far and wide the music and culture would eventually develop, proponents envisioned the power of the “Goa spirit” ultimately affecting all humankind.
As the movement took off, it extended beyond Goa to other neo-nomadic tourist enclaves (Manali, Pune, KoPha Ngan, Bali) and urban centers (London, San Francisco, Cape Town, Tokyo, Tel-Aviv). The millennium came and went and as psytrance and its related activities became more well-known, they drew the attention of state and local authorities who sought to control, regulate and profit from them. In the course of its trajectory, Goa psytrance was gradually engulfed by capitalist economies and underwent a process of commodification and subdivision. With the growth of the movement, its more seasoned core either adapted to the new conditions or dropped out, thus creating the need for this book—partly to pay tribute to past feats and partly to “officially” record Goa psytrance genealogies, traditions and Weltanschauung before they mutate beyond recognition and memory.
The two Austrian authors are scene veterans who initially published Goa in German (2010), followed a year later by the English edition, with additional languages in the works. The first sections of the book sketch the heyday of the Goa psytrance scene and offer explanations of some of the central cultural and performative expressions to have emerged from this period. The following sections report on psytrance festivals and provide snapshots and a storyline for the Goa movement in thirteen countries.
Taken as a whole, the book is a highly selective ‘His-tory’ of past events, mostly written from the point of view of privileged middle-class white Anglo-European men whose lifestyles and livelihoods are apparently tied to the Goa enterprise. As appropriate to the genre, the book’s discussion of psytrance history and culture is steeped in psychedelia and peppered with fantastic language and anecdotal cosmic interventions. The colorful imagery enhances this sentiment and geometric fractals appear in various forms on nearly every page. While many of the chapters are in easy to read prose, only four of them contain bibliographic citations. In the absence of other methods of verification, some of the details come across as travelers’ yarns rather than genuine fact. Universal mottos like “Love, Drugs and Psychedelic Trance” (13) and “We are One” (back cover), and sweeping pronouncements that at parties “the openness that is lived makes racism, nationalism, sexual preferences and religious hate appear totally obsolete” (40), are oblivious to life outside the Goa bubble and seem indulgent and overstated. For instance, missing are the local native actors, who are found in the background of a few of the pictures, but whose role within the insular Goa narrative is essentially overlooked.
By and large, the book seldom delves into self-critique apart from a brief final chapter where, among other recommended improvements, are suggestions that the scene would benefit from more spiritually directed drug taking, nudity and “sexual play” (284). The chapter foresees the future of psytrance manifesting in a “‘one stop shop’” (285) integrated party where the various Goa psytrance attributes combine to become “the main hub for human needs”. Unsure what to make of this lofty prediction, I lent the book to a friend who lived in Goa in the 1990s to get his feedback. Pouring over the glossy photos in the hopes of finding a familiar face among the beaming Goa-heads, my friend recognized a few past acquaintances. Parts of the book, he noted, felt like a caricature and, at least for him—a once-upon-a-time insider—failed to fully convey his Goa experience. “If one had no prior knowledge on the matter, [the book] could look a little cheesy—bunch of westerners (Japanese incl.) going around having ‘cool’ parties in exotic far-away places” (personal communication 2015).
Recognizing that its founding mothers and fathers have aged, the chapter ends with a concerned plea that “Psytrance and our Goa movement must not be forgotten, as they are part of the cultural evolutionary history of mankind” (285). Following the contributor and photographer bios and credits, the last pages are advertisements for upcoming festivals, smartshops and cannabis seed banks. These products presumably represent the current maturation of the Goa scene whose elder members, a recent survey on drug use trends in Britain discovered, have gone a bit soft. “Drugs are now taken principally at home, suggesting that the ravers, techno-heads and trance fiends are now cutting up their drugs on coffee-table books, rather than boshing them on sweaty dancefloors” (Preston 2014). This hefty, nearly two-kilo, volume is an admirable undertaking which, despite its limitations and glossy presentation of the psytrance habitat, boldly presents a subject matter that generally circumvents customary media exposure. The book makes for a stimulating conversation piece both for past and present participants as well as for people who are unacquainted with, or uncertain about, the profound and ongoing impact the Goa psytrance milieu is having on contemporary reality.
Preston, Alex. 2014. “Drug-taking fortysomethings with one foot in the rave”. The Guardian. 5 October. <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/05/-sp-drug-taking-fortysomethings-rave-middle-aged> (accessed 18 May 2015).