It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday, and we’re braving a switchback-riddled dirt road on an Indian reservation somewhere northeast of Bakersfield. There’s a cliff on one side, a mountain on the other, three friends in the passenger seats, camping gear in the trunk, a hula hoop strapped to the bike rack on top, and a full moon overhead. In spite of the four hours we’ve put in since we left Los Angeles, an indeterminate distance of rock and dirt stretches between us and the Moontribe Tenth Anniversary Full Moon Gathering, which our directions indicate is happening at the end of the road.
In other words, it’s another more or less normal night in hot pursuit of beats in the underworld.
Due to problems with land access, law enforcement authorities, and vibe-killing ravers who don’t respect the organization’s leave-no-trace ethos, directions to Moontribe are a tightly guarded secret within the cyberhippie community. Like Burning Man and other cyberhippie events that represent the confluence of technology, music, art, and neurochemical experiments in human consciousness, Moontribe events tend to be purposely isolated. In fact, one member of the tribe is responsible for finding ever more hidden gathering locations, and spends his free time driving up and down dirt roads in the high desert and mountains between Los Angeles and San Francisco, searching for bust-free spots.
“When you’re trying to find Moontribe, you go as far as you think the middle of nowhere is, and then you go a little bit farther,” says Nicole, one of my traveling companions, who has attended dozens of Full Moon Gatherings up and down the Pacific coast during the past six years.
When we do finally reach the party twenty minutes later, an elfin cyberhippie clad in earth-toned tech wear stops us on the dirt road, welcomes us, warns us not to set foot in a sacred tribal area that abuts the gathering, and lectures us for five minutes on proper party, camping, and trash- disposal etiquette. In the distance, the sound system beckons with thumping tribal techno spun by Moontribe founder Daniel. Finally, our lecturer waves us on and we’re treated to a river crossing before we scramble to set up our tents and get our swerve on before the sun rises.
When we make it to the clearing in the forest where the sound system is set up, a scrim of dust rises from the dance area beneath the canopy of conifers overhead that makes the dancers seem like they’re swimming in a brown sea, and leaves a thick coating of muck on the speaker cabinets and the hundreds of people who’ve been partying since Friday.
In spite of the tightly guarded directions, word about this party clearly got out, because in addition to the standard cast of cyberhippies clad in Eastern-inflected garb, there are loads of primarily male ravers stumbling about tweaked out of their gourds. There are a few old-school Moontribers in their late thirties to mid-forties in the house as well, some holding babies that giggle and bounce to the beats.
At the portable toilets we discover trash on the floors, urine and TP covering the toilet seats, and graffiti scrawled on the walls. While this is a common occurrence elsewhere, every person who entered this party received the same instructions to respect the land, the other partygoers and, presumably, the toilets. It’s not just that you expect better behavior at Moontribe — it’s more or less demanded.
But outside, the river runs through the middle of the camping area, passing hundreds of cars and tents before it curls past the DJ booth, where a Brazilian DJ based in Los Angeles is spinning psy trance. It takes something more powerful than simply an outdoor dance party to bring together this many people this far from civilization — it takes vibe, and vibe is here in abundance. But if a powerful positive vibe is created when hundreds of people gather around a sound system in the middle of a forest or on a dry lakebed in the high desert, is it possible for the power of these temporarily autonomous leisure zones to be channeled back into real life? More importantly, if partyers can’t figure out how to pee in a toilet, pick up their own trash, or otherwise respect their peers, can they realistically be expected to organize and take action as a unified political force once the music stops?
A crew of Los Angeles-based DJs founded Moontribe in 1993 at the height of the First Great American Rave Awakening, dragging a sound system out to the desert and throwing the first of what would become legendary quarterly full moon gatherings. More than a party, Moontribe gatherings blend ecstatic celebrations with ecoconsciousness, political action, and headier, less easily quantifiable aims, such as transforming human consciousness.
While Moontribe is perhaps the most legendary crew with such gatherings and core principles, similar collectives, many with links to Burning Man crews — groups of people organized around setting up and sharing theme camps, art cars, and sound systems — have sprung up almost exclusively on the West Coast (Florida is an exception), due to their geographic proximity to Black Rock City and Burning Man, and the foundation laid by the burgeoning psy-trance scene of early-’90s SF and LA. Furthermore, the open public lands and maze-like desert roads of the West are ideal for sub-rosa gatherings.
But maybe “collectives” is the wrong word to describe these groups. Since the advent of the psychedelic counterculture in the late ’60s, its primarily white, affluent participants have fetishized the cultures of Native Americans and Eastern religious practices. The fact that psychedelic electronic music collectives in 2003 call themselves “tribes,” then, is unsurprising. But it is something of a misnomer. Certain sects of the goth, punk rock, folk, and jam band subcultures all label themselves “tribes,” as do niche groups of mountain bikers, rock climbers, Harley riders, and sports fans. These factors combined with the widespread popularity of branding, tribal tattoos and piercings, and the corporate co-opting of neo-primitivism and tribalism as a marketing trope for everything from soft-shell tacos to footwear has substantially diluted the meaning of the word.
“I think of things like the disco underground in New York in the ’70s, or the various post-rave subcultures, as being like postmodern ethnicities, elective tribes,” says Simon Reynolds, author of Generation Ecstasy and one of the world’s foremost authorities on electronic music culture. “In other words, with real tribes you’re born into them and [their] worldview is the total horizon of reality for you, whereas with elective tribes you choose to join them and it’s a role you step into and then step out of when you go back to your normal work or family life.”
Similar collectives with parallel aims existed in England during the early to mid-’90s as part of what came to be known as the crusty raver movement, including the legendary Spiral Tribe, a band of New Age travelers, musicians, artists, and anarchists born in the illegal rave scene in the English countryside. In the end, Spiral Tribe’s parties, recordings, activism, and anarchist philosophy created a good time for thousands of people, but amounted to more or less nothing in terms of impacting greater society. And then there’s the psychedelic generation of the Haight-Ashbury era, the group that turned on, tuned in, and dropped out before largely adopting conservative political and social ideologies, and becoming the greatest mass of hyperconspicuous consumers in the history of the world.
History is not on the side of modern cyberhippie tribes in their efforts to change the world, then, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Unlike most Burning Man “participants” who just want to be left alone to freak out in the desert for a week every year and then leave what they’ve learned behind on the playa like so much spilled bongwater, these collectives actively seek to alter real life and transform the world with the power of their communities. During the week leading up to the Moontribe tenth Anniversary, these modern cyberhippies converged in the concrete and steel heart of Hollywood at the Q-Topia Events Center for the fourth annual Gathering of the Tribes.
According to the conference’s Web site, GOTT “unites and supports dance music collectives by cultivating networks and promoting activism, education, and sustainability.” More specifically, “Gathering of the Tribes is based on the belief that the experience of dancing together has the power to bring understanding, healing, and peace into an otherwise tumultuous and rapidly changing world. The Gathering of the Tribes was conceived under the premise that electronic dance collectives are vital to the future of our society because they are dedicated to the ideals of collective social organization, freedom of personal and artistic expression, and openness of belief and lifestyle. Also, due to the number of youth involved in the dance underground worldwide (conservative estimates are in the tens of millions), the electronic dance movement is able to communicate with potentially thousands of youth in positive ways that other outreach efforts may not.”
While these are admirable aims, they’re not easily achievable. The experience of dancing can be tribal, ritualistic, and religious, but for most people it is a purposefully mindless, hedonistic act pursued as a pleasurable end in itself. Partying is fun, but for most people it’s simply partying, and not a bridge to social or political engagement with the real world.
“Mostly dance culture works because it is unideological, nonaligned, somehow outside politics and the workaday world,” Reynolds says. “A lot of people are happier with the predictable pleasures of clubs where you get what you pay for and nothing more — mild satisfaction guaranteed.”
However, the Congressional passage of the revised RAVE Act in the Amber Alert legislation, which poses imminent danger to clubs, raves, and full-moon gatherings, instantaneously politicized the electronic music community. Major clubs such as Twilo and Limelight in New York and Buzz in Washington, DC, have already been worked over and shut down. Whether the community considers itself a political body or not, historical and legislative circumstances have conspired to make it so. If electronic music culture is to be preserved, much less make an impact on the greater world, now is the time for action.
This moment in history dovetailed nicely with GOTT’s theme: Evolution + Manifestation = Transformation.
For GOTT attendees, the resilient RAVE Act was but one issue on a conference agenda packed with dozens of seminars and speakers addressing topics including cognitive liberty and ethics, tribal evolution and lore, healing, movement, permaculture, making the world a better place with psychedelics, environmental activism, transpersonal psychology, hip-hop culture, sustainable living, the peace movement, the state of the underground, legal matters, and how music can physically transform DNA.
Given the mainstream media’s sensationalized approach to covering electronic music and its culture, reaching out to it is not currently part of GOTT’s master plan. Perhaps fearing the prying eyes of the same law enforcement authorities that had used the power of the new Homeland Security legislation to shut down a benefit for NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy at an Eagles Lodge in Montana a few weeks earlier, the location of GOTT was kept secret until a few days before the conference, when it was sent via e-mails marked “do not forward.”
On opening night, attendees sat on cushions around tables that had been arranged in a continuous spiral that began in the center of the cavernous warehouse space and unwound across its concrete floor. Two altars swathed in Eastern tapestries and decorated with Buddhist and Hindu paraphernalia, Day-Glo artwork, sacred geometric patterns, and beads had been set up against one of the walls to pay homage to the concepts of Evolution and Manifestation. A giant sound system rested on a stage at the front of the room, portending the all-night dance parties to come. But for the moment, two musicians played sitar and djembe while a New Age priest clad in vestments began the opening ritual by saying, “Everyone be seated with your spine straight, allowing your Kundalini energy to flow, and roll your eyes up toward your third eye.”
Twenty minutes later, we rose to plow through the vegan and vegetarian buffet provided by Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, laid out beneath a sign that read “Food is a love note from God. Its letters are written by the rays of the sun.” Thusly fueled and with the requisite sage-smudging having already taken place earlier in the day, the cyberhippie equivalent of a G7 conference kicked into high gear.
Symposiums were conducted casually Wednesday through Friday. The slate of New Age, pseudoscience, and psychedelic drug-oriented presentations underscored the fact that if this culture truly aspires to go overground, it will have to carefully control the manner in which these subjects are presented to an electronic music-averse public and media, which remains constantly in search of damning ammunition to put an end to a way of life that millions of Americans have enjoyed, for the most part safely, for more than a decade.
It’s difficult to make forward progress on important issues in an environment filled with like-minded people content to nod at one another’s polemic tracts about the injustice of the world and sticking it to the Man, and so the daytime events were not always the most productive. But during the evening Sages Circles, conference coordinator and event moderator Dustianne North kept conversations focused, on-track, solution-oriented, and productive.
In an attempt to glean lessons from the problems, power, and failures of the first psychedelic generation rather than repeat their mistakes, a number of speakers from that era shared their knowledge during the Sages Circles, including Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, Barbara Marx Hubbard of the Center for Conscious Evolution in Santa Barbara, Prophets Conference founders Cody Johnson and Robin Haines from New Mexico, and the oldest attendee, 73-year-old Irving Sarnoff of Friends of the United Nations. These were people who embodied the spirit of working for social, political, and environmental change on the large scale GOTT aspires to, and their gravitas and sagacity held the crowd rapt.
“It’s very important for outlying or bohemian communities to understand their connection with the greater culture,” said Barlow, reflecting on what he’d learned from his thirty-some years with the Dead before quoting the anarchist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I want no part of your revolution.”
Barlow urged attendees to become politically active, to reach across the aisle and engage the mainstream, to register to vote, and to build coalitions with other marginalized communities. “It’s been pretty much middle-aged white people,” Johnson said, reflecting on his experiences organizing the Prophets Conference. “But if we’re going to make a difference, we’ve all got to make a difference.”
Anyone can babble pie-in-the-sky talk until they’re blue in the face, but bringing far-fetched ideas to life and getting results takes hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work. To this end, leaders of the various tribes met the following day between workshops on polyamory, pregnancy and parenting while raving, independent media, trapeze, and sound yoga to formulate a solid game plan for bringing all this idealism to life. Their conversations yielded a road map to raise money to fund a nonprofit, so that a core staff would be able to work toward those goals full-time.
During the closing ceremony, before the group joined to sing an Indian prayer of remembrance and the tribes went their separate ways, North gave GOTT participants the opportunity to share information, inspiration, or comments one last time. Shahira, a political activist from LA who works for a not-for-profit, took the microphone and made a call to action: “We are all the roosters, so let’s get loud.”
But these particular tribes have never had a problem making noise. When they congregate — in the high desert, in the mountains, in forests up and down the coast and across the United States and Canada — they have colossal sound systems behind them. Whether their diverse messages will resonate in the real world, or live on once the music dies, still remains to be seen.