Goa Trance

Hippies had been coming to Goa since the 1960s in search of enlightenment, and by the 1970s the parties were legendary, held on the beach when there was a full moon, long before Thailand made them famous. The cheap and powerful local hash was an irresistible draw, as was the general air of ‘anything goes’. Curious locals looked on bemused at the children of the revolution disporting themselves free of the constraints of home, and it was a great unifier in many ways: Germans, French, British, Americans, Scandivanians… all mingled happily, speaking a basic lingua franca of each other’s languages, catered to by enterprising locals who despite their bemusement, were only too happy to learn how to make banana pancakes or sell imported Mars Bars to the foreigners. By the late 1980s a new trend had arrived via the clubs of Europe: the futuristic sound that became known as acid house – a digitalised set of bleeps and squeaks with a thumping bassline. Ecstasy became popular and the music changed accordingly; the slower beats of rock and reggae popular with the hash smoke crew now seemed old fashioned, out of step with the stimulated buzz of E. Acid House merged with the mechanical, industrial sound of Techno, but added a distinctively tropical twist, incorporating the exotic locale by sampling ethnic sounds, psychedelic influences and wafty ambient backgrounds. Mellower than the frantic beats-per-minute of Techno, faster than the old reggae/dub/rock, Trance had arrived.

By the early 1990s a series of superstar DJs had ‘discovered’ Goa, and plugged it hard. Paul Oakenfold was probably the best known at the time, creating a two-hour ‘Goa Mix’, but many others followed suit. Here’s a sample of it:

Pretty mainstream these days, but at the time it was highly influential. Oakenfold himself, already a superstar, entered the pantheon of DJs and somehow indefinably lost his cool. But more talent was lining up, and it was reflecting the new political realities of Europe as the Berlin Wall came down: the Russians were coming. And they wanted harder, faster beats, to suit harder, faster people; they had a sense of wanting to make up for lost time, having been restricted in their ability to travel, to have access to the licentiousness of the west, for so long. Here’s an interesting one, which is by a Ukrainian producer featuring an Indian singer, Arunima Bhattacharya, which is a pretty good example of the sound:

Anjuna and Vagator beaches were the main location for these parties, but as with anywhere that people congregate in a spirit of mutual hedonism, assorted predators circle to pick off the weaker ones. Drugs in Goa are rife. Police corruption is notorious. Underworld money, whether from Mumbai or Moscow, funds hotel resorts, the drug trade, everything. There is a status quo to be upheld, an equilibrium to be maintained, whereby young holidaymakers bringing desperately needed hard currency into the Indian economy as tourists want simply to have fun, and the vast majority are law-abiding (relatively speaking. Even at home in Europe the odd joint will rarely get you more than a slap on the wrist, and Ecstasy usage is widespread). But the predators circle, and sometimes a single event can reveal the sleazy underbelly. In 2008, on a patch of ground behind the beach shacks that thump out Trance music every night across Anjuna, a British girl was murdered. She was 15 years old, and her name was Scarlett Keeling.

It’s not unusual to see teenagers partying all night here, although most would be 18 or so – first year undergraduate age. Scarlett Keeling was a bit different. Her mother was an old India hand, and they had lived a lifestyle best described as ‘bohemian’, alternating between the UK and India. For complicated reasons, Scarlett had been left on her own in the care of a local guide who was friends with the family while her mother went travelling down the coast with 6 more of her children. What happened next was an awful yet illustrative example of a young girl already out of her depth drawn into a darker and darker scene: one which involved drugs and the predatory individuals who pick off the loners, single out the vulnerable in the crowd. Her diary betrays her despair, with entries like ‘I feel so trapped, I just want to make a decision and get out of this’. Fuelled by a cocktail of drugs she found herself watching hardcore porn in the company of a group of local boys, encouraged by her ‘boyfriend’. Essentially she was being groomed. The story is complex and contradictory, many details still unexplained, but the outcome for Scarlett was the same: the 15-year-old Devon schoolgirl was found naked and battered on a patch of ground behind Anjuna beach. She had over 50 injuries and had been repeatedly raped. Two men were later arrested and charged: a local barman was the chief suspect.

The Goa scene has never quite recovered. It’s one of those situations where it is suspected that certain people know more than they are letting on. The police procedure was incompetent even by local standards, and reeks of a cover up. This is, ultimately, a small town, and as in all small towns, people clam up, tap their nose, don’t want to say too much. But the story made headlines all over the world, Goa’s tourism department went into a panic, and they tried to clean up the place’s image. In part they succeeded: the Goa scene is a shadow of what it was. But drugs are still openly used, and the people who lurk on the margins, who are involved in the sale of them, still exist. It’s like the old argument about criminalisation of something only driving it into the arms of the criminal fraternity. And there’s still that old equilibrium to be maintained. If Goa enforced India’s drug laws as rigorously as they are in Europe or the US, the place would shut down. Nobody would come, other than a few wholesome middle-aged tourists staying in four star hotels and spending all day at the beach. So the scene continues, diminished but not destroyed.

Anjuna Beach: 10.30pm on a Friday night. We ride the bike down increasingly narrow tracks until we are bumping over loose sand and stones. Small stalls sell brightly-coloured clothing of a vaguely ethic description, and Bob Marley T-shirts. Three Swedish teenagers stagger past, tipsy blonde girls in tiny tight shorts. They are followed by four hot-eyed Indian men. We stop to look for a place to park and a middle-aged man looms out of the darkness and hisses: “Hash? Hashish? You want drugs? Anything?” No thank you. We ride on.

The road ends and we walk down the beach. Green lasers whirl around the sky and there is a tremendously deep thump of bass from one of the shacks. The waves wash up and lap at the foot of the shacks. Local guys sell fluorescent bangles, torches that create a kaleidoscope of light. They murmur softly, indecipherably. Groups of young Indians from out of state swagger past. Towards us comes an elderly gora (white), with a shock of white hair like an absent-minded professor. He looks like he got lost on his way through a BBC4 documentary. But as he draws closer his clothes give him away: combats cut off at the knee, a patchwork colourful Rajasthani waistcoat, a tie-dyed T-Shirt. He must be in his sixties. One of the old guard. Two Mediterranean girls go past, in denim hotpants and see-through tops: I hear the choppy guttural sibilants of Hebrew. We stop on the beach outside a shack called “Hippies”. The techno beat is earth-shaking. On the sand in front of the shack locals have set up stalls as in any market place: a small, rotund lady wearing a shawl round her head, despite it being nearly thirty degrees, sells eggs and bread. Groups of young foreigners sit cross-legged on the sand smoking joints. A low wall, not more than two feet high, leads into the dancefloor. Inside 90% are foreigners. The other side of the wall, on the beach, are the locals. They jig to the music as much, if not more, as the people inside. A group of young village boys stand in a circle and do a jumping, clapping sort of dance, like Arabs. Another with the hungry look of the not-quite-arrived surveys the scene with an acquisitive eye, checking the girls. An unlit cigarette dangles from his lips. A short, powerfully built Indian with a proper 1980s mullet hairstyle down his neck, in stonewashed jeans and a white stripey shirt tucked into them, jigs his leg back and forth, and then when the beat kicks in properly, is inspired: he flaps his elbows like the Chicken Dance and stamps his right foot. He looks deeply, hopelessly unfashionable, even here amongst the freakwear of assorted 1960s throwbacks, but seems to be having a good time. I stand with K amongst the Indians outside, all of them jigging up and down to the beat, feeling pleased to be on their side of the wall and not in there with the miserable-looking goras.

A small European girl, perhaps ten years old, comes out of a shack and sits down on a beach chair, scowling at the sea. She sticks her fingers in her ears and keeps them there, looking angry, lost, miserable. A man brushes past me and whispers: “Hash? You want hash?” A toddler runs zigzagging through the crowd with a towel over his head, arms out for balance, short curtailed childish steps, looking for his mummy. In front of the shack, about 6 feet from the gate, so close that people entering have to step round him as one has to drive around sacred cows here, which always have the right of way, sits an old Indian man. He sports a maroon turban and has a blanket pulled tight around his shoulders. I watch him for at least ten minutes and he does not move a muscle. Utterly impassive. The ground is shaking beneath him to the trance beat, drunks stagger past yelling, a couple lie entwined on a mat, a young guy lies down in the waves and tries to pull them up over himself like a coverlet, then shouts angrily when a wave hits him in the face with a wet slap and his friend goes to try to get him back onto dry land, and this old Indian man sits there as solid and impassive as if he were made of stone, like an aborigine who simply refuses to see what is around him. I could wave my hand in front of his eyes and he would look through me. He may well have sat here for thirty years, when the music was Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, the hippies wore flares and smoked hash and Ecstasy hadn’t been invented and the world was unrecognisable from what it is now, and he may be here in another thirty for all I know. He is the only real object on this entire beach.