In recent years ‘Darkpsy’ has proliferated through psychedelic trance like Yersinia pestis, with a clear goal in mind; the destruction of everything you think you are. Graham St John from the University of Queensland sensitively delivers his observations of the phenomenon, and the role of Goa Gil during it’s ichorous ascension to pandemic status, on Dancecult.net. While Gil’s methods and motives have been met with considerable criticism, he remains a potent and influential figure throughout the scene.
Angel’s Camp, near Santa Cruz, California, 11–12 October 2006.
It’s well past midnight, as psychedelic savants and nouveau freaks amass under redwoods. Overhead, the cosmos is vast and the stars are blinking back on those gathered in the clearing, soon to be buried under an avalanche of “killah” bass-patterns. Goa Gil is wreaking his usual havoc on those who’ve arrived to celebrate his 55th birthday. The “Godfather of trance” performs within a makeshift shrine, pushing darkpsy from a pair of Sony TCD-D8 DAT Walkmans,1 under Tibetan flags, over a statue of Ganesh with a Buddha decorated in plastic lotus flowers seated nearby. Behind dark shades and with grey dreadlocks knotted back, Gil is back-dropped by a fluorescent Shiva-Shakti mandala tapestry and another featuring Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, all illuminated under black light. Next to his DAT players, Gil burns incense, has placed framed photographs of his gurujis, and controls a device with a red pulsing, the Devanagari sign for Om, the sacred syllable in the Indian religions. As a hallmark of Gil’s parties, the rate of the flashing is synched with the beats, which may range in excess of 180 BPM through the night and into the day. Behind the shrine-stage is Gil’s Porta-Potty. At the helm, and without relent, he will punish this freak congregation for 24 hours.
Goa Gil has had an integral role in the evolution of psychedelic trance (psytrance) from its roots in Goa, India, to its adoption in scenes around the world. Having arrived in Goa in 1970 fresh from San Francisco’s acid rock scene, Gil would, 40 years hence, become a renowned selector and producer of dark psychedelic trance music, promulgating this genre in his trance dance “rituals” performed at locations around the world at least a decade before “darkpsy” became a recognized genre. He has also formed, with his wife, African dance instructor, percussionist and producer Ariane MacAvoy (and for some time Peter Ziegelmeier, aka Kode IV), the outfit The Nommos. In 2010, Gil performed some 22 gigs, many over 24 hours, at venues in India, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Chile and other locations. Having led approximately 500 trance dance rituals,2 Gil is a spiritual authority for freaks in the world psychedelic diaspora, with Michael McAteer, who produced a devotional BA thesis on Gil, casting him as a “mystagogue” (2002). The prestige he holds within the Goa/psytrance community is apparent in the collection Goa: 20 Years of Psychedelic Trance (Rom and Querner 2010) where Gil writes the first of 36 chapters. But while many owe gratitude to Gil’s interventions, he attracts considerable controversy. In Victoria Bizzell’s analysis, Gil is couched as the leading advocate of a “transnational neo-tribalism”, whose “world without borders” is “an extension of a Western neo-colonialist mentality that sees the often-fabricated spiritual and ontological mythologies of ‘other’ cultures as ripe products for semiotic appropriation” (2008: 290). Recognizing that Goa trance and its progeny neither possess nor are possessed by a single figurehead, aesthetic or tribalism, this article addresses the ambivalence embodied by DJ Goa Gil; a man who is revered and reproved with equivalent passion. But then, Gil’s practice is notoriously aberrant for this profession. For Goa Gil is not simply a DJ (and some will argue that he is not a “DJ” at all), but a religious specialist, an initiate in the Shaivite sect Juna Akhara, a cultural exile, a spiritual activist and a phenomenal anomaly.
Figure 1. Goa Gil’s DJ altar, Moscow 2010. Photo: Goa Gil.
Being ambiguous with regard to the law is the province of the electronic musician and performer, who hustles and mixes found sound as an art form, and who provides the soundtrack for dancescapes inhabited by those who enter experimental (and often unlawful) states of consciousness. In Chiara Baldini’s (2010) view, this ambiguity is embodied by the Goa DJ, who, with charismatic dreadlocks, exotic tattoos and strange piercings, may be a target of desire and enmity, drawing diverse responses not unlike that met by Dionysus, the personification of cultic ambivalence. Destructive/creative, trickster-like, queer, a freak, a transgressor of rules, codes and boundaries, the DJ cuts an ambiguous figure and draws disparate yet extreme emotive responses across the community of transgressors/transgressed; with the ambivalence amplified if the DJ is a figure who, not unlike the shaman or the mystic, is reputedly mobile across transpersonal frontiers. In addition to being an embodiment of transgression, the DJ is integral to independent musical cultural movements. There has been very little scholarly attention given to the DJ as cultural activist, although it is implicitly recognized that DJs are, from Jamaican dancehall to hip hop, Detroit techno, psychedelic trance and dubstep, promoters and champions of a variety of causes and concerns, both unique to their communities of origin and integral to horizon campaigns (see Beck and Lynch 2009). Elsewhere (St John 2012, forthcoming), I explore the psytrance DJ as an outlaw figure, and have also factored the role of DJ performances into the arts of protest (St John 2009a). Psytrance is a potent liminal arena for the recombination of the outlaw and the activist, in no small part due to the exile sensibility inhering in the Goa tradition.
Psytrance has emerged from a tradition inhabited by the cultural exile who made his/ her departure from untenable conditions occasioned by the impossibilities of the “nuclear” family and the possibilities of “nuclear” war, that effected a notable impact on 1960s and 1970s forebears. Though it was not exclusively the case among proto-freak émigrés settling in Goa (consider Eight Finger Eddie’s background as the child of Armenian immigrants in Depression-era Boston—see below), for the most part it was their privileged backgrounds that permitted Goa freaks to choose their exodus, that enabled their responses to outlawed practice, existential despair, disenchantment and cognitive dissonance already experienced as a product of middle-class lifestyles. However, the exodus was not simply the fulfillment of “advanced needs”, but a reaction to inherited social, cultural and historical conditions. This is the career of the freak, the liberated man and woman, who, as opposed to the “political” exile—who is forced to vacate home/nation and may even become associated with a “government in exile” which desires a return to power—is a self-elected exile, driven by circumstance to dwell in a permanent state of departure from the maladies of modern life. Of course, the self-exile is also a political exile, in the sense that tobias c. van Veen (2010) has outlined for rave. As a “desertion from acceptable modes of collective and individual responsibility” and a participatory “absence of signs”, rave’s “passage through exodus enacts a defection or disappearance from politics (and its logic of representation) to the political” (van Veen 2010: 42; 41), which, in the dissolution of the distinction between labour and leisure, is recognized as a space of potential. The self-exile is a connoisseur of experience; of freedoms which rupture the conditions of self-hood associated with possessive materialism, nationalism and monotheism (although see Schmidt 2010). S/he shares this precarious liminal status with other expatriates, bohemians and mystics; mutants whose artifice flourishes in alternative enclaves where liberties sought are as multiple as the oppressive conditions in the lifeworlds from which they have made exodus. Seasons in Goa echoed a diversity of intent, and a concomitant medley of experience. There were those who simply underwent a decadent wasting of their selves in orgiastic abandonment at year’s end. This predictable annihilation of familiarity is typical to the turn of the year, where New Year’s Eve is among the pinnacle celebrations in the lives of Westerners, with this transit featuring prominently among those vacating in Goa. Here paradisical Goa, perhaps now more than ever, might be considered in the light of the “zone of indistinction between the human and the animal” (Agamben 1998: 105) that Diken and Laustsen argue characterizes tourist “camps” of naked excess and licensed transgression like Ibiza, the clubbers paradise defined by dance music, cheap drugs and casual sex (2004: 2). By comparison to the seasonal trippers as ravenous homo sacer making camp with no thought for tomorrow, others sought expatriation from Occidental subjectivity in an enduring career of seekership, or channeled their insouciance into projects fueling the Goa “state of mind” (Elliott 2010) shipped to regions outside Goa, sometimes remaining true to principles that attracted exiles in the beginning, other times reinhabiting modes of practice once abhorred. A prominent figure among the cultural fugitives and antinomians who made it to Goa, and then made “Goa” a cultural phenomenon beyond “the beach”, Gil is a liminal exemplar whose heteroclite dharma-punk rhetoric has been eulogized and excoriated in equivalent intensity.
Gil is foremost an exponent of ritual transition, who professes to adopt the trance dance assemblage as a revitalizing spiritual technology. His millenarian repertoire is consequent to the intentional ritualization inhering in Goa trance and inherited by psychedelic trance. These reflexive practices appropriate and repurpose functional elements of dance/music events throughout recorded history, European and otherwise. Such practices absorb the semiotic cachet of traditional ritual sampled and remixed by producers, and under this romanticism, Goa is seen, at least in Bizzell’s (2008: 288) distant gaze, as “a screen upon which to project the desires and utopian fantasies of a Western generation in the midst of a spiritual and ontological crisis”. In Gil’s rhetoric, ritual practice is appropriated and remixed from a generally unidentified primordial stock to which we are all apparently heirs. Gil, whose repeated mantra is “redefining ancient ritual for the 21st century”, has his thoughts sampled on Lalith K. Rao’s (aka Alien Mental) track “Ritual” (Mind Hack, 2007):
I think that my concept can fit with every culture because it draws inspiration and direction from a time of humanity when, no matter where you went, people were in touch with the earth and the spirits of nature, the Sun and the Moon and all the elements. And so we’re delving to the same place and trying to bring the same thing forth but with the technology of the 21st century, and in a way to appeal to the youth of the 21st century.
Figure 2. Poster for Goa Gil party, Chile, 13 November 2010.