I’m on holiday, a family holiday, with my ex-partner who comes here every year and our children, who are dozing off norovirus in bed. From the balcony of our room you can only see trees. I do not know what most of them are – the palms are, obviously, palms, and the car is parked beneath the tendriled shade of a vast banyan, but the others are just trees, unidentified parts of a vista. The managers of the hotel have taken the precaution of removing the coconuts from the palm trees lest they decapitate guests but, aside from that, the immediate visual impression is arboreal, an illusion of nature.
There is sound rising behind the trees: the trickle of water feeding the pool, the repetitive brush strokes of the man whose job it is to sweep leaves from the flower beds, a Sisyphean task carried out with relentless, fruitless efficiency, and the steady thud of dance music.
By dance music I mean the sort of dance music that Roger Scruton now famously disapproves of – the sort characterised by repetitive beats and informal, solipsistic dancing. Scruton claims that the more traditional sorts of dance, with their formalised movements and social mediation of human interaction, are the more enjoyable, and that if only the young deluded folk who go raving out of mindless habit would try them they’d find them superior.
Scruton would no doubt be dismayed by the scene here. India, with its rich cultural heritage, not least in the sphere of music and dance, is losing its youth to the techno parties. The banners for the electronic music festival up the road consist largely of home-grown DJs, and you can’t drive within a five-mile radius of it for the duration. It is a phenomenon remarkable for both speed and scale and it looks terrifyingly as though everyone might be enjoying themselves – at the beach parties there is little evidence of looming existential crisis at the hellscape of atomised dancing.
I first came to Goa twelve years ago, when the party scene that had metastasised from the first Western hippy settlers was entirely Eurocentric. Everyone flew in on charter flights from northern places and pretended that they hadn’t and that they’d been there all along like the proper travellers, who rented beachside shacks and had started to get quite brown. People aspired to the highest level of travellerdom, which was as far as the going native bit went, and had the odd Ganesha embroidered on their bag, and otherwise seemed to ignore their host culture. Encounters with Indian people at raves consisted mostly of interactions with the chai ladies. There was a New Year’s Eve party, an uncomfortable mismatch of worlds, in which a lot of Indian men got very drunk and unpleasantly gropey in what I assume they mistook for a sexual free-for-all. It all felt quite dysfunctional: it is all very well to have utopian visions, and the hippy and trance scene were full of those, although it is not entirely clear what they involved apart from dancing, veganism and the cultivation of unusual mushrooms, but there needs to be something in it for those whose land your purported utopia inhabits.
Things have changed. Ten years ago, on a second visit, I struck up conversations with amicable ravers from Delhi or Mumbai, but there weren’t many of them and they were all male, and on the back foot socially in a still-Eurocentric world. Now, there are ten times more Indian men than women at the parties, but the women are present, and attired in the manner of the international raver, or perhaps in the international manner of the raver, since the habits trample the illusion of the nation-state: comfortable footwear, which must, critically, be bike-appropriate, for the best parties are invariably inaccessible without a motorcycle journey and a long walk, and shorts or leggings and a vest top. There is no space for concerns regarding the modesty of one’s shoulders on a sweaty dancefloor. When it gets busy on the roads, which it does in a way that shrieks peak anthropocene at eleven o’clock at night, clouds of red dust hang in the hot air along with the petrol fumes of thousands of bikes, and it is common to see girls dressed to party on their bikes, faces swathed in scarves to keep the dust out of their hair and face so that only a small eye-slit remains, a sort of reverse niqab situation. As a Western woman, the presence of the Indian party girls makes you feel invisible in a way that you did not before they arrived, and the invisibility feels good.
There is nothing to assuage colonial guilt like the new prevalence of the Indian middle classes on the party scene, as though the presence of the locals on the dancefloor dilutes the reality that as a Westerner you live like a king in the bubble afforded by the roll of currency you changed on arrival. The locals on the dancefloor are rarely local – the local locals are busy working, taking advantage of the busiest time of the tourist year, and the numberplates on the party bikes are from neighbouring Maharashtra and Karnataka, the affluent young professionals of Mumbai and Bangalore. Taking days off to party at a time is an issue of socio-economic rather than racial privilege these days, as perhaps it ever was in India.
For the last decade or so, Goa was the party destination for Russians and Israelis, the latter often on leave from military service and accordingly letting off steam, so that they gained a reputation from the more chilled raver factions for being unduly aggressive. This year, at least right now, at the peak time between Christmas and the New Year, neither are in evidence: the recession in Russia has hit hard, and word on the street is that the Israelis were increasingly refused visas out of fear of terrorist attacks.
It was certainly disconcerting to arrive at a beachside shack in the evening with a jetlagged seven-year-old in tow to encounter an airport-style metal detector. If only the Russians and Israelis could be there too the place would, I suppose, have made the ideal substrate for an angry Daeshophile: add a smattering of assorted Europeans and the new, newly decadent and mostly Hindu upper classes from the most Westernised Indian cities and there’s little not to hate.
The oddity of it, though, is that as far as party scenes go the psytrance world is pretty austere to the point that its more dedicated adherents can be extremely dull, and more interested in proselytising about correct recycling practices than recounting anecdotes of fear and loathing on the road to Siolim. There are no Caligula-style orgies to be found, no silver platters of cocaine, remarkably little drunkenness. The blessing and the curse of psychedelics lies in moderation – at the point where stonedness can’t go any further you will collapse in a corner, involuntarily dancing with your hands or toes, possibly talking nonsense, but that is as far as the dissolution goes. Upon reflection, that is not quite fair: some people claim to have spiritual experiences when dancing in which they become one with a great cosmic mind and that sort of thing, which, when you think about it, is a sort of extreme Withness.
The ingestion of psychedelics is key to the Goa school of raving because it is quite hard to get the point of the music without them: you can hear the fast repetitive beats underpinning it and the rest sounds like sped-up intestinal noise. For a long time, all psytrance acts had names seemingly snatched from cell biology textbooks so that the names of DJs on a flier – I misremember them more than a decade on as things like Metaphase, Telomere, Endoplasmic Reticulum – could look like an exam cribsheet on acid, or, more accurately, DMT, since the Terence McKenna-style machine elves that tended to populate them too are for some reason more of a tryptamine phenomenon.
The character of psychedelic music – and this applies to psychedelic rock music as well as psytrance – is that it contains a lot of unfolding detail. This means that the obvious patterns you can pick up in straightforward 4/4 techno or garage rock do not seem to be there, because there are loads of patterns coexisting in it, because the person who made it took a lot of acid and lost track of the time. This makes it inaccessible at first – it can seem a bit like obnoxiously revved-up white noise. Once you patiently tolerate it for hours and hours or, preferably, get stoned, the patterns start to emerge. It seems as though the drugs enable you to expand your expectation of where to find the patterns that we interpret as being musical. Once you have learned how to do this, it is then possible to apply that particular type of musical pattern-recognition when not stoned. The greatest danger here is mistaking ordinary background sounds – the rhythmic commuter trains passed on the way home from a big night out, the chatter of monkeys in the trees, the swell of waves – for music, so that the world at large takes that shape, but it is a pleasant risk to take.
No doubt this is where Scruton’s beef with techno comes from: he sits in an inveterate line of people cross about new music whose newfangled patterns evade them. Perhaps he should drop some acid. The issue of the quality of the experience still remains.
Scruton talks about “being-with” as the benefit of dancing that gets lost with the old formalities that governed it. You could be-with whoever the village or your father’s gaze would allow you to be with, but the governing social morality of your small world would be ever-present.
In the less constrained settings of the night-time dancefloor, you are being-with in a more extensive way – with the immediate coterie of your surrounding ravers, and with yourself, and, at the risk of sounding hippyish, with the music and the notion of a world in which it is possible to snatch moments of pure introspective pleasure alongside other people who are doing the same thing, and with whom there is an unspoken sense of fraternity. What Scruton fails to see is that it is possible to do being-with on a greater scale beyond the romantic or familial. The early M25 rave scene was a great social leveller for precisely this reason: hippies and yuppies and brickies had that moment, and their acknowledgement of its mutual enjoyment, in common.
It is unlikely that Scruton is acquainted with the millennial comedy series Spaced, but the episode in which its protagonists go clubbing is spot on in its depiction of how the being-with of raving works. There is the moment where they – it is implied – drop the E and the music suddenly makes sense; where, upon spilling a pint over a very big man, a moment of terror sublimates into a matey hug; where previously unspoken acknowledgements of friendship and affection are laid bare.
Before rave culture took off, going to a club was traditionally a sexually predatory activity that carried the risk of a drunken brawl. Dancing was a performative activity in which the aim was to attract a mate or elevate one’s social capital. I’m sure the cry of neoliberalism will continue to be levied against rave culture but it does look a little like an evolutionary improvement on the mating-dance. And how different are those other traditional dances from the mating-dance anyway? They are the mating-dances that hail from a time when the community decided who you could mate with.
At least Scruton is upfront about his conservatism, because nothing is more conservative than the belief in the beneficence of small-town family values. Perhaps he’d think that those Indian party people will come to their senses before long and abandon the dancefloor and its illusory freedoms.