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Are we living through a great awakening?

Astrology types think that the Age of Aquarius, an era of consciousness and unity following 2,000 years of hierarchy and domination, might finally be upon us. But you don’t need to believe in horoscopes to note a spiritual whiff in the air. Not when your girlfriend’s group chat is called “The Coven”, your Insta feed is full of DMT memes, celebs are being hounded for their birth charts and – alarm bells – your dad just signed up to his first gong bath.

We’re trying to get our bearings in a world that no longer makes sense, and lots of us are seeking answers in esoteric corners: witchcraft, magick, crystals, tarot, even conspiracy theory. It’s a trend that’s already well-documented, under headlines like “Mysticore is the new norm,” “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals,” or “Witchcraft goes mainstream – and becomes big business”. This “irrational turn” is often framed as a response to the surreality of the last half-decade of public life. That certainly seems plausible, but it’s a reading that ignores a more fundamental desire for mystery and transcendence in our otherwise mundane lives.

In secular modern societies, there aren’t many social or cultural arenas where an encounter with the ineffable Great Beyond might be encouraged or accepted – but music is an exception. (Team sports, with their ritual behaviour and religious fervor, might be another.) Whether that encounter happens on a dancefloor, in a mosh pit or in a silent auditorium, every fandom understands the ritualised experience of listening together. The more specific the community, the more powerful the feeling.

Rave, as a culture and a genre, has always dangled the possibility of spiritual transcendence. “We’ll make it to the promised land.” “God is a DJ, this is my church.” Raving is a chance to shake off the limits of our physical existence and experience a sense of “union with something larger than ourselves,” as the philosopher William James put it, “and in that union find our greatest peace.” The ecstatic ritual experience of rave – sometimes aided by actual ecstasy – is familiar to most ravers, even if they wouldn’t describe it in those terms.

Recently, two separate forces – one slow-burning and subtle, the other immediate and catastrophic – have come along to transform our shared ritual in ways that we are yet to fully comprehend. Most immediately, there’s the pandemic. The shutdown of live music was lamented as a disaster for everyone whose income depends on the industry, and for the rest of us who just really miss dancing. But isn’t there something more going on? One petition to the UK government, for instance, clumsily demanded the reopening of nightclubs on the grounds that people rely on them “to escape” and “to cope mentally.” This kind of secular reading of rave culture rests on the idea of music as a release valve, but without being able to explain what it is we’re seeking release from, or searching for instead. The idea that raves are beneficial to mental health is probably correct – it certainly feels that way after nine months of not being allowed to do it – but it pathologises the experience in a way that obscures a much more fundamental answer about our need for ritual communion and meaning-making.

“We’ve lost ceremonies – nightclubs are our way of ceremony,” suggests Maya Medvešek, the Glasgow-based DJ and producer known as Nightwave. In recent years, Medvešek’s spiritual practice has steered her towards training as a holistic therapist, but she’s way ahead of the curve when it comes to the current turn towards the esoteric. Her longtime obsessions include “the Vedic tradition, Freemasons, Rosicrucians,” she says, “and the Ancient Egyptians, of course.” Medvešek was also ahead of the curve when she released her debut EP in 2011, back when it seemed like you could count the number of female techno DJs on two hands.

“We’ve lost ceremonies – nightclubs are our way of ceremony”
– Nightwave

In the years since, a feminist groundswell has brought a wave of women, trans and non-binary DJs into the booth. The impact runs deeper than representation. Dancefloors themselves, as spaces for certain kinds of interaction, as temporary zones outside of formal structures of control, have changed. Demands have been made. The utopian ‘safe space’ will never be perfectly actualised, but it’s now an agreed-upon goal. Without wanting to invoke patchouli-scented vagaries about “divine feminine energy”, it’s as if dancefloors are vibrating in a different way now. It’s a shift that goes hand-in-glove with the reclaiming of dance music’s queer roots, as well as a broader cultural reckoning with gender identity.

This structure of feeling is neatly expressed in the success of Eris Drew and Octo Octa, trans women DJs and partners who’ve amassed a huge underground following in the past three years and even put a dent in the mainstream with their mixes for Radio 1 and Fabric. Drew’s popularity, in particular, is about more than her on-point selections and unique mixing style. Her ideology sets her apart – notably, a spiritual-musical worldview she calls “the Motherbeat”, which combines feminism, psychedelics, nature-worship and rave culture. The same hippy philosophy would have been met with a raised eyebrow even eight years ago, in the era of “working man’s techno” (the slogan for New York City label White Material) and the macho fetishisation of vinyl, modular synths and analogue gear.

“There are so many artists who weren’t so keen to share [their spiritual beliefs] before – it is a bit woo-woo,” says Medvešek, “but that is rapidly changing.” Her newfound dedication to “woo-woo” stuff came after experiencing burnout. “I came to a point five years ago where I had to leave the industry. It was making me unwell. All the hedonism and backstabbing – I just felt it was dark.” Before lockdown, Medvešek started an apprenticeship in Kambo therapy, a purging ritual that uses secretions from an Amazon tree frog, which is purported to be effective for various physical and emotional ailments. Combined with ayahuasca and meditation (she’s a practising Tibetan Buddhist), Medvešek claims her spiritual growth has revitalised her art, culminating in her recent EP, Power Plants: “My music is better. I’m more confident and not looking for validation anymore. There’s more intention – in the artwork, in the track names. It comes from a more spiritual side, even though it’s rave music.”

If the dancefloor chalks out a space for ecstatic communion, its complementary opposite might be the introspective zones of ambient music and sound baths. LA-based harpist and Leaving Records signee Nailah Hunter dabbles in both, using her gong to administer a subtle mind-scrub to her sound bath participants – but she doesn’t call herself a healer. “I’m a bit suspicious of people who are like, ‘I’m a shaman, I can lead you down this path,’” she warns. “Having said that, I do like to make music with healing in mind.” Hunter’s solo recordings draw on fantasy, mythology and symbolism to create “a safe place where I can just sit and heal.” During lockdown, she channelled this restorative practice into a collaboration with three of her Leaving labelmates, releasing an album of transportive ambient under the name Galdre Visions.

Hunter grew up in a Baptist church, but now describes her spiritual practice as close to Wicca, with “nature as the centre and the guiding force,” while keeping in mind her ancestral connection to Haitian Vodou. For Black people, the current spiritual resurgence can often take the shape of reclaiming knowledge of pre-Christian beliefs. “It’s been bubbling, but it’s popped off now,” she says. “It’s like, let’s remember what we been knowing.” But the fact that this development has made itself known to the wider world through visual information – specifically on Instagram – strikes her as faintly suspect. “Being able to say that there’s a resurgence because there’s a bunch of images [that] project spirituality,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want to share my spirituality, since it’s such a personal thing. Who am I trying to prove this to?” Besides, she laughs, you should “only cast spells with your ride-or-dies.”

Other musicians are exploring spirituality in more directly political terms. As E.R. Pulgar documented in a recent issue of Crack Magazine, Latinx artists like La Bruja, Ibeyi and Dengue Dengue Dengue invoke Indigenous spirituality and syncretic belief systems, like Vodou and Santeria, to tend to the scars of colonialism. It’s no coincidence that many artists who speak out against patriarchy, homophobia and white supremacy are involved in non-Western spiritual practices. The reason some traditions are labelled “alternative” or “exotic” is because of a colonial history of subjugation, says Sarah Shin, writer and co-founder of Ignota Books, a London publisher which describes itself as “an experiment in the techniques of awakening”. “My interest in the ‘irrational’ is very much a critique of patriarchal and racist invalidation of ways of knowing deemed to be unreasonable or primitive,” adds Shin. “It’s important that the contemporary popularity of astrology and self-care and mindfulness and so on doesn’t lose sight of how power always plays a role in how we access these things.” In the same way that raving can’t be reduced to escapism, listening shouldn’t be understood as passive, either. Shin points to the “deep listening” practice of the late avant-garde musician Pauline Oliveros as “a form of radical attention that brings together spirituality and the social”. Listening is a skill that must be practised, she adds, in order to “become attuned to subtlety and to be aware of what gets tuned out”.

In his recent book about mescaline, the unpredictable hallucinogenic derived from desert cacti, author Mike Jay provides a description of an archaeological discovery that can’t help but sound a massive klaxon in the mind of the modern raver. In a cave in the High Andes of Peru, archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric ritual gatherings where participants would have ingested the San Pedro cactus while surrounded by disorienting sound and light effects: mountain streams were rerouted to echo through the tunnels, conch trumpet shells were blown and fragments of anthracite mirror bounced light against the walls like some neolithic disco ball. The connections between sound, ritual, community and chemically-assisted quests for meaning are as old as human society.

Through its yoking of the spiritual and the social, the act of listening to music in ritualised group settings seems more necessary and inevitable than ever during this cultural plate-shift. “Our rituals,” as Drew said in an interview last year, “are about transcending the rationalist nightmare, which does things like brutalise trans folks, de-power the subjective, and destroy our planet.” Every time we reduce our communal musical experiences to a means of escape, a coping mechanism, or a cog in the night-time economy, we cheat ourselves out of the grail that put us on the quest in the first place. When the pandemic is over, wouldn’t it be grand to know that our year of magical thinking – the spells we cast over Zoom, the shroomy afternoons in the park – had left us better equipped to reboot without the bullshit, and reach for whatever lies beyond the lasers?