Raves & Electronica
Witchcraft and the Rave Scene
By Riyana Lilyhawk
An hour away from all the cities, 10,000 young people gather to the sound of heavy bass drums, the throbbing of synthesizers and patterned sequences. There are lights everywhere, spanning the entire spectrum of colors, throbbing to the deep bass that surrounds us. A ray of deep violet twists through the mass, brushing across us as we dance. The music is everything: the thick intricacies of the drums colliding with one another, the spinning chant of the MC at the mike, the soulful wailing of woman respun again and again on a turntable. Some people stand quietly, their eyes half-closed; most are dancing. A yellow strobe above us blinks on-n-off, on-n-off — we’re just two little sparks of electricity in a huge, rushing current. It’s the music that makes us feel that way — it’s also the cold desert air pierced by hundreds of psychedelic lights, and the sand beneath our feet, and the people all around us — but most of all, it’s the music, and the vibe — pure electricity.
It’s a word that conjures up images of madness, of chaos, and drugged-out teens cavorting at “one of those rave parties.” But there’s more there than meets the eye. Many ravers speak of a tangible energy they feel and consciously try to focus at a rave: the “Vibe.” Rave organizers use lights and rhythmic music to create a place outside of the mundane world for deep, experimental moving trances. And ravers around the world are often misrepresented by the media and misunderstood by the public.
In short, it’s a lot like Witchcraft.
In many ways, the similarities between Witches and ravers seem remarkable: the creation of sacred space for energy work, the belief in focusing energy for global healing and personal growth, and reverence for the earth.
And it’s a connection many ravers embrace.
“We’re Pagans,” states the author of Alt.Rave.Faq, Brian Behlendof. “We worship big walls of sound.”
My First Rave
It’s easy to get caught up in the slander. When my friend Ryan — innocent, studious, shy Ryan — first told me he went to raves, I raised my eyebrows and backed away slightly. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. He laughed. “The worst thing that’ll happen to you at a rave is that someone you don’t know will come up and hug you,” he said. I didn’t believe him. He knew it, too.
Then I went to a rave some young adults held at the California Witchcamp two years ago. We came back from an exhausting ritual that evening and somehow still managed to dance non-stop until 3 a.m. The music wouldn’t let me stop dancing — I could feel the way every other person in the room was moving, and that we were all in synch with one another and with the rhythm blasting out of a tiny boombox in the corner of the dining hall.
If a group of fifty people and a bunch of flashlights could make me feel like that, I could only imagine what it would be like with stacks of speakers, entire systems of lights, and thousands of people. I had to go.
As soon as I got back to LA, I gave Ryan a call.
Going Between the Worlds: Temporary Autonomous Zones
The rave was called Urban Phenomenon at the LA Sports Arena. There were over 12,000 tickets sold.
The night before we went to Urban Phenomenon, I couldn’t sleep. Ryan had told me a few things to expect, and my older brother Dylan, who also goes to raves, had told me more — but still lingering in the back of my mind were all the things I’d read in the newspapers or heard through the rumor mill.
After being searched, my friends and I walked into the brightly lit, linoleum-floored corridor that surrounds the stadium. It was crawling with people wearing everything from glow-in-the-dark jewelry to oversized pants with cuffs well over half a yard in diameter. Their faces were glittered, and many had glow-sticks intertwined in their fingers.
Through the little doorways leading onto the balcony overlooking the stadium floor, I could see the rave. Imagine looking through a window into a psychedelic night sky, where the stars are made of radiant green stripes and orange flashes and violet strobes. I slowly walked out onto the balcony, taking in the throngs of people on the dance floor, the loud music, the cascade of speakers and mechanical equipment hanging on grids from the stage in the center of the stadium. Ryan looked over at me, smiling.
“Wanna go?” he asked, motioning with his head.
We clambered down the balcony steps and found the escalator to go down onto the floor. Slowly, the linoleum and white paint slips away and it gets darker, louder. Somewhere half-way down, you enter another world. It’s like entering the circle.
Raves are woven together. The carefully orchestrated atmosphere is intended to create the sense of an alternate dimension: the secluded desert or warehouse locations, music programmed by gadgets and shaped by a DJ, glittering lights and otherworldly clothing. It is here, between the worlds, that ravers attempt to get in touch with themselves and the energy that they have created. This is ritual space.
“A large part of the concept of raves is built upon sensory overload — a barrage of audio and very often visual stimuli are brought together to elevate people into an altered state of existence,” Behlendof says. “The hypnotizing effect of techno music coupled with the seamless transitions and thematic progressions of rave DJs can be intoxicating.”
More philosophical ravers speak of this space as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ, a place where they can be free to explore themselves and the world outside the walls.
“We are creating TAZs for our minds to investigate the mysteries of the universe, as we once again, like our distant ancestors, cajole the spirits of the trees and the sky, the earth and the cosmos to come out and play,” said Kath, who wrote an essay on raving called “Trance Magic.” “Ancient earth drums dance in symbiotic merriment with the metallic inter-galactic beats as the circles of sound expand and astound our imagination with vibratory awareness.”
The idea of the TAZ is loosely based on the writings of Hakim Bey, who said that those who attempt cultural change within the boundaries of society will find their endeavors harnessed, repressed, or destroyed. Because of this, a separate, distinct realm must be created to cradle the change until it grows strong enough to withstand its opposition.
“It is an escape from mainstream society into a utopian world for a few hours,” states Eric Steins, author of “Peace, Love, Dancing and Drugs.” “It is a creation of space where love and happiness exist beyond everything else. A rave is a phenomenon that does not exist within the rules of society; it is the creation of a separate space. Beyond the culture of escape, though, is a culture based on hope.”
Guardians of the Watchtowers: Peace, Love, Unity and Respect
Just as dawn broke over the jagged LA skyline, the dream ended. I woke up from the heartbeats and the journey next to Ryan, Dylan, my other friends, and the nearly two thousand others who had stayed the whole night. I rubbed the “eight-hours-of-dancing” exhaustion from my eyes, feeling strangely vulnerable, then blinked as a strange girl with face paint and sparkly antenna reached over and squeezed my hand.
“PLUR,” she said, smiling.
PLUR is the entire rave philosophy banded into an easy four-letter word: Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. It is like our Rede; four pillars that buttress the connection between hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who are part of a common movement.
Like many Reclaiming Witches, ravers embrace the concept of peace as an action, rather than a lack of action. They feel it is their responsibility not only to create a sense of peace and love during the rave, but to spread peace and cultural justice into the world around them as well.
“If raves can bring about PLUR in total strangers, helping to smash the walls of isolation and ignorance, it stands as a perfect example of how the world could be,” says raver Noah Raford. “The potential, energy, and technology are here to bring about sweeping global change. It’s enough to give me hope and overlook the uncaring, racist, selfish politics that seem to dominate popular culture and society — the age-old dream of one world, united in brotherhood and peace.”
Perhaps this sense of social responsibility comes from techno’s roots in rap music; as the folk music of the sixties and seventies gave way to disco, R&B, and Pop in the eighties and nineties, songs about political action and reform all but disappeared in popular culture — except for rap music, where artists continue to revolt against the status quo. Whether you’re talking about jungle, trance, house, or hardcore, electronic music is essentially revolutionary in its very construction. Instead of being based on a hierarchy of vocals over lead instruments over rhythm, most forms of electronic music come together in an organic and egalitarian way. Different harmonies drop in and out constantly, creating an integration of sounds. Whereas other forms of music seems to come out of the speakers to elicit some particular emotion, electronic music draws you in – into the music, and into yourself and your own emotions.
“When we organize parties collectively, we learn how work can be done without hierarchies,” Monicat, another raver, says. “Gathering together to create healthy communities in a culture that seeks to divide us, or give us a false sense of community based on MTV and consumption, is a radical and political act. Creating art and play outside of the marketplace is a radical and political act. Every time I rave, I voice my protest.”
Many ravers also take a deeply philosophical approach to their raving, in addition to seeing it as political. When we come together, it is not simply to begin change, but to feel a common bond with one another, based on compassion and affection.
“I have a vision of a future where everyone takes for granted the common path of love, much like today everyone takes for granted a familiarity with the spoken word,” said one raver. “When people ask me why I rave, I always think that this is what I want to tell them. This is what the music and people are really about.”
In addition, “love” involves not only the feeling that binds people together at a party, but a deeper connection to ourselves. Like ritual and other forms of trance, it is about exploring inner depths, and from there, the mysterious universe we are a part of.
“The dance awakens the soul, and the memory that humanity is not the end, just a stepping stone. Never stop moving. Never stop the process of evolution. The energy brings inner growth, new faces help nurture this growth with their loving smiles and attitudes,” says raver Jason Parsons. “It blossoms. Reaching beyond the moment and building a bridge between Dreams and Reality. This is why I rave. Because I believe. Because I love. Because I live.”
Unity and Respect
One of the most striking things about raves, once you get past the whole where-on-earth-did-they-get-so-many-colored-lights?-thing, is the how-on-earth-did-they-get-so-many-people-of-different-colors-together-thing.
Diversity is one of the distinguishing factors of the rave movement, not only in comparison to college campuses, but also to other youth-oriented events. Woodstock ‘99, for example, turned out to be extremely dangerous for many concert-goers, with several instances of rape and dozens of assaults. In comparison, raves continue to have a surprisingly minimal record of violence. I have never been at a rave where there was any violent incident — quite a feat, indeed, when you consider that “How Sweet It Is” drew over 35,000 young people from all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
I noticed it even among my own group of friends at that first rave. Most of us were UCR students, and yet, our little crew was markedly more diverse compared to the school population overall (a public college which proudly claims the most ethnically diverse student composition in the UC entire system). Ryan, my best friend Lisa, and my brother and I are all of European-decent; Mark is Chicano; Fernando is Peruvian and Darren is African American. Once we got to the rave we ran into two other people we knew— my friend Desmond, who is Asian American, and Fernando’s friend John, who is Filipino.
Although male DJs and producers still seem to dominate the rave scene, in more subtle ways, ravers express the ideal of gender equality. For example, rave clothing seems designed to go along with the idea that gender is more of a social construct than a biological difference. Phat pants (very baggy pants, often made of synthetic materials) are worn by guys and girls alike: on guys, the huge cuffs sometimes look almost skirt-like (especially when paired with jewelry made of plastic beads, which is extremely common), while on a girl, they take the emphasis off of her sexuality and the tendency to objectify her.
Another raver relates, “What struck me more than the immense sensory bliss was the amazing group of people who shared this experience with me — six thousand young, beautiful humans having one HELL of a good time together. Six thousand brothers and sisters of all raves, classes, and sexual orientations. Living equality. Raving is about unity. The whole point is to get away from the differences between us.”
Magic: The Vibe
Santa Monica Civic Center, Underworld Concert, Fall, 1999. Fernando, Ryan, Darren and I are squished together, driven to dance by the rhythm, and yet unwilling to step on anyone. Layers of music taper off and blend with one another, although that demanding rhythm — fast, driving drums — is always there. Abruptly the melody breaks and the violet and blue lights are replaced by a flood of pale yellow. For a moment I feel like we have entered some sort of lemonade dimension. The floor is physically, noticeably moving beneath our feet. Everywhere is energy — the Vibe.
Perhaps what separates ravers even more from other types of musical gatherings today, and other forms of social progress, is the Vibe. Variously called “essence,” “energy,” “ethereal,” and “gossamer,” the Vibe is always regarded as a tangible force that can be focused and shaped to bring about the ideals of PLUR — just as Witches might use magic to bring about that “change of consciousness at will.”
“Cut through the clouds of trendism and commercialization that attach themselves to any major new mutation in culture — what wants to be invoked is that imaginal, incandescent core out of which all the smoke and noise is generated,” says Cinnamon Twist, in “Imaginal Rave.” “At the heart of the rave is a modern, technologically-clad form of non-verbal, ecstatic communion.”
Most ravers who say they feel “the vibe” also say that it isn’t something new they’ve created. Much as Witches view magic, they see it as ancestral, old, natural, and all around us. Ravers may not ever refer to a goddess or god, but there is no doubt that many find raving spiritually fulfilling, reestablishing the sacred bond between the physical body, the heart, their community, and the earth.
“At one point, the DJ was perfectly in sync with the rhythm of the approaching waves that were pounding the coast for miles in both directions, the sound of the music blended with the sound of the waves like an intricate fractal,” Geoff White said, after participating in one of the highly regarded Moontribe full moon raves. “When we rave, we simulate something that has been going on for millions of years.”
Grounding: Problems in the Rave Scene
And yet, five young people in Southern California did drive their car off of a cliff last summer on their way back from a rave, all of them high on LSD.
Although ravers do find connection and magic through the atmosphere, music, and dance, drug use (and the right clothes, and the right way to dance, and the right hairstyle) is becoming more and more central to the scene. Ecstasy and LSD have always been prominent among ravers for their hallucinogenic and mood-enhancing qualities, but now fewer people rave sober, and fewer still remember the premises that set the scene in motion. Many people at a rave, if you asked them, wouldn’t know what you meant by TAZ or “the vibe.” Once, when I was talking to Fernando, I mentioned PLUR. “That’s so cool,” he said — but he’d obviously never heard of it before in his life. Another person I know loves to rave — as long as he’s taken one or two hits of E. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. As for focusing energy for the common good of the world, you can forget about it.
“The rave scene has become swamped in commercialism,” Steins says, citing an influx of speed, heroin, cocaine, and the recently-emerging drug GHB at raves, non-hallucinogenic drugs that until now have been unassociated with raving. “This is the best defense that society could have ever used against the rave scene. It is because of this that there has been a loss of the sacredness. As the rave scene becomes more popular, fewer people are going to create a temporary loving space, and more people are going to get wasted.”
Ryan — the original raver, my guide and inspiration — turned me down when I told him we were all going to M2K for New Year’s Eve, 2000. “I don’t think I’m going to rave for a few months,” he said. “It’s just not the same anymore.”
Ravers definitely lack focus. At a rave we may be able to create energy — beautiful, strong, “gossamer” energy — but there is no focused place to send it once it is created, even if it is raised in an attempt to promote political change and spiritual development. Throw in the rising tide of irresponsible drug use and the growing crowds who have no interest in the philosophical side of raving, and you find yourself in a diffused, amorphous haze.
In addition, ravers don’t ground. There may be a lot of connection and trance-work going on, but there is no anchor down, leaving many people feeling like they are “floating,” unable to really take in their experiences. Dylan once explained that the reason he wished he could achieve an altered state without the use of drugs was simply that he felt would get more out of it. “I just want to be able to control it more,” he told me. “Sometimes when you’re in there, it’s all just a rush, and you can’t really process everything that’s happening. We need a way to process.”
The Morning After: A Conclusion
So, where to go from here? I noted at the top of this article the similarities between Witches and ravers such as the creation of sacred space, focusing energy, and reverence for the earth. And like pagans, ravers face problems with misrepresentation, commercialization, and people who are involved in the scene for the wrong reasons — in this case, drug use.
On the flip side, the rave scene might be able to teach Witches a thing or two about diversity, especially when it comes to people of color and youth.
Ravers are people who, above all, have heard the Charge of the Goddess in the heavy throbbing patterns of drum n’ bass. “...All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals...You shall sing and make music... Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and mine is joy upon the earth...” We see the spiral in shards of light dancing on white vinyl screens and take the descent into the underworld on freeways and desert roads, rebirthing more aware and more alive than we were before.
As a raver, I know that we’re going to have to choose which way the movement will go from here. But I feel inspired to think that one of the paths before us, focusing on change, energy, and magic, runs right alongside my spiritual path. There are many things that pagans and ravers could learn from one another and, more importantly, many ways we can work together towards common goals.
So perhaps next time you read in the morning paper about “those rave parties,” you won’t think of just the drugs, because we don’t. And the next time you see one of the brightly colored fliers in a record store or laying on the ground, maybe it’ll tempt you to try something new... something revolutionary... something magical.
PLUR and Blessed Be.
Riyana Lilyhawk is an avid raver, swing-dancer, and dreamer. She is currently working towards an MFA in film at USC.
Discography @ Discography @ Discography
Although not strictly electronic, this album is a great transition from mainstream to rave-inspired music. Bjork’s melodic voice and haunting lyrics float over knots of violins and cellos and synthetic drums.
Second Toughest in Infants, Underworld
Music that defies category, but with roots in House and Trance. Layers of heavy bass, complex drum patterns, and abstract vocals fuse in a climactic, moving journey.
Last Train to Lhasa, Banco de Gaia
Soft, magnetic ambient trance that brings together tribal percussion – doumbeks, djembes, and tablas – with persistent drum loops and lilting melodies.
Return to Saturn, Goldie
Jungle originator Goldie weaves together a two CD set incorporating many different styles of drum n’ bass and live instrumentation into a broad collection of tough streetwise beats and cinematic production.
Decks, EFX, and 909, Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman)
Quality minimalist techno from track one to track thirty-eight. Hard and fast, Hawtin deftly integrates drum machines and electronic effects into the standard two-table DJ mix.
Tranceport, Paul Oakenfold
Sweet, uplifting epic trance from England’s most classic electronic DJ. Simply amazing, this album is a cornerstone in bringing rave music to the masses. Just a taste: “Embracing the goddess energy within yourselves will bring all of you to a new understanding and valuing of life, a vision that inspires you to live and love on planet earth. Like a priceless jewel, buried in dark layers of soil and stone, earth radiates her brilliant beauty into the caverns of space and time.”