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Dancing in the Cosmic Sweet Spot: Total Solar Eclipse Gatherings

“Once I saw people applaud the sky.” It was March 7, 1970, and later maven of integrative medicine Andrew Weil had become witness to an extraordinary life-changing event. Under a clear Saturday morning sky, Weil had observed villagers and natives crowding into the market town of Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, where they were exposed to a total solar eclipse. Marveling upon the sky, the locals are reported to have broken into a “spontaneous ovation of the heavens.” In his Marriage of the Sun and Moon: A Quest for Unity in Consciousness, Weil offers the immediate background for the excitement: “with great drama, a nebulous darkness grew out of the west — the edge of the umbra, or cone of shadow, whose swift passage over the globe traces the path of the total eclipse.”

The unearthly light endured for over three minutes, a temporality expanding into a prolonged present. Weil explained that there was “a quality to those minutes within the umbra that must be like the feeling in the eye of a hurricane. After all the dramatic changes of accelerating intensity, everything stopped: There was an improbable sense of peace and equilibrium. Time did not flow.” Indeed, it was three-and-a-half-minutes of clock time incomparable to any duration he’d previously known. “Then, all at once, a spot of blinding yellow light appeared, the corona vanished in the glare, shadow bands raced across the landscape once more, and the dome of shadow melted away to the east.” It was then that all of Miahuatlán broke into applause.

The people of Miahuatlán were getting high. Real high. At this privileged juncture in time and space they shared in the perfect alignment of Earth, Moon and Sun with their own bodies. And subsequent to this moment, our mesmerized observer sought to understand why this cosmic synchronicity had such a transfiguring impact on those who experienced it. According to Weil, “to participate in that moment of uncanny equilibrium is to have one’s faith strengthened in the possibility of equilibrium and to experience the paradox that balance and stillness are to be found at the heart of all change.”

The union of the Sun and the Moon is recurrent in philosophies and myths world-wide, that are “symbolic of the union of conscious and unconscious forces within the human psyche that must take place if one is to become whole.” Typically accessed via meditation, drugs, hypnosis, trance and other techniques, those hidden realms of consciousness occulted to us in our daily lives, are said to be perfectly represented by the corona of the Sun in union with the Moon, which is also recognized as a union of masculine and feminine energies. Thus, a total solar eclipse signifies an alchemical exchange of solar and lunar phases of consciousness, with totality contextualizing something of a peak psychocultural experience.

If we hold that there is truth in this reasoning, it then figures why such cosmic events are significant moments in the world of Goa/psytrance, whose participants, following the path Weil trailblazed in the early 1970s, would become totality freaks. By all accounts, the first Eclipse Rave was held near the coastal city of Arica at the edge of the Atacama, Chile, on November 2nd and 3rd 1994. Held in the immediate years of transition from Pinochet, that event was organized chiefly through a Chilean-German partnership, and was sponsored by outfitters Pash and filmed by MTV. With no more than 300 freaks converging (many of whom had been travelling to Goa), the occasion featured Derrick May and for the first time in his homeland, Ricardo Villalobos.

Eclipse chasing has a long background. Historically, the experience of totality associated with a total eclipse of the Sun has been a cause for celebration or alarm, and has been interpreted according to local cosmological systems. Scientists have shown great interest in total solar eclipses since the 1700s, but it was in 1836 when solar physicist Francis Bailey had founded the industry of eclipse chasing while generating popular interest in solar physics. From that period, populations were known to travel from locations outside the line of totality to observe the spectacle, with multinational scientific expeditions mounted over the next century. Eclipse chasing eventually became a recreational pursuit with help from the Pedas-Sigler family of educators who, from the early 1970s, initiated eclipse tourism on cruise ships.

In a little known corner of history, these entrepreneurs had attempted to stage a rock festival-called “Eclipse ’70” in March 1970 at the same time Weil had experienced his epiphanies in Mexico — in the line of the Moon’s shadow in a tiny fishing village in Suffolk, Virginia, called Eclipse (so named after a solar eclipse there in 1900). But the festival was opposed by the townsfolk, who condemned the staging of a freak-out in their backyard only months after Woodstock. Eclipse ’70 ranks among the greatest parties that never happened.

The Pedas-Sigler eclipse tours, beginning with the “Voyage to Darkness” cruise off the north Atlantic coast of Canada in 1972, demonstrated that it was not only subscribers to Sky and Telescope that were gravitating to remote regions where shadow bands stalk the Earth. From the early 1970s, the 100 mile wide shadow has drawn many into its path. While the eclipse failed to be drawn into the orbit of the counterculture in 1970 in Virginia (when the dance music eclipse festival idea was abandoned for lunar liner cruises), with the aid of cheaper travel, electronic music technologies and the internet, it would take another 25-30 years before visionary dance music events began materializing on the path of the solar eclipse.

By the late 1990s, as a cavalcade of spiritualists, astrologers and psychedelic big-game hunters found themselves in the playing fields of the HierosGamos, scientists and hippies, technicians and visionaries found themselves proximate to one another in social spatio-temporal scenarios planned according to the alignment of celestial spheres at sites anticipated as optimum observation points on the line of totality. Despite the growing presence of those determined to record the experience using photographic equipment, visionary arts dance festivals accommodated those who implicitly recognized that a total solar eclipse is not merely a cosmic event to observe remotely, and nor just a personal alchemical experience, but a wild social event in which one was immersed totally. Like a daytime Full Moon party, or a dozen turns of the New Year celebrated at once, the alignments affected a licentious atmosphere among the crowds gathering in the totality.

So, as cosmic cowboys, prophets and prospectors joined the hunt, a whole new social event came into being as a highly specialised traveller phenomenon. Subsequent to the Eclipse Rave in Chile, solar seekers travelled to events mounted in Siberia/Mongolia, South Asia and Venezuela, where over 500 people trekked to Total Eclipse 98, held on the Peninsula de Paraguana at the northern tip of the country. The party featured the likes of Doof, Sid Shanti, Mark Allen, Max Lanfranconi from Etnica and Pan. In a 1998 edition of the psychedelic trance magazine Dream Creation, Jason C reported being “lapped by the Carribean Sea, cocooned in a sand-dune, surrounded by smiling technicolour people”. “Nothing can prepare you”, he reflected, “for the moment of totality. A wall of darkness races towards you, sudden dusk. And then …. You can see the cosmos like you’ve never seen it before, the Sun’s corona illuminating the Earth in a 360 degree sunset”.

After witnessing an eclipse in India in 1996, Simon Posford and Raja Ram produced their ethnodelic “…And the Day Turned to Night”, the closing epic on their 1998 debut album Are You Shpongled? In the following year, 15,000 people reputedly traveled to the momentous Solipse Festival at Ozora, Hungary (1999), which has been the site of the Ozora Festival since 2003. There was a second Solipse Festival held in Zambia in June 2001 and in early December 2002 festivals were mounted on the path of totality near Lindhurst, South Australia (Exotic Native’s Outback Eclipse), and in South Africa (organized by Vortex, Alien Safari and Etnicanet on the border of Kruger National Park).

Outback Eclipse was my first eclipse gathering, and although I had known various music, dance and alternative arts festivals in Australia by that time, including those mounted in that desert region like Earthdream2000, little could have prepared me for the cosmic symphony ahead. In the late afternoon of the fourth day, wearing my special “eclipse glasses”, I stood on a long elevated earth platform with thousands of eclipse chasers facing west, the direction of the setting Sun, to observe a drama emblazoned across the heavens. It was as if the twin discs of the Moon and the Sun were mixed seamlessly by a cosmic DJ, and that alongside my companions back on Earth, I was dancing in the cosmic sweet spot.

Near the end of March three and a half years later, rendezvousing with fellow travelers in sight of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, we motorcaded overnight south to the Mediterranean city of Antalya, last stop before Soulclipse, billed as a “Universal Trance Gathering”. Attended by 7-8,000 people, Soulclipse was held 27 March-2 April 2006 in Paradise Canyon on the fast flowing Koprulu Canyon River. At mid-afternoon on the day of the main event, all became engulfed by the dome of shadow as the Sun was occulted and Venus burned high in the mid-afternoon sky. It was a three-minute cosmic snapshot whose dark flash left an imprint on the multitude of naked retinas belonging to the howling massive.

These massives have continued to grow, howl and genuflect amid this daytime nightworld. Recently there have been smaller, exclusive and limited events in Altay, Siberia, (Planet Art Festival, July-Aug 2008), on Amami Island Japan (2009) and on Easter Island (2010). While the much-vaunted Honu Eclipse festival on Easter Island was apparently plagued by difficulties and a small turnout, the concurrent Black Pearl Eclipse adventure to the Cook Islands in the same line of totality in July 2010 was a glaring success. With 50-60 intrepid adventurers, I boarded the island trader Tekou Maru II (fitted out with sound system and DJs) to intercept with the cosmic shadow off Mangaia in the Southern Pacific where we were treated to two minutes of surreal shadow time.

2012 has already seen one major eclipse gathering, with Symbiosis holding a massive gathering to celebrate an annular eclipse out at Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 17-21 May 2012. With a diversity of electronic and fusional styles, that event had four main stages and a strong Burner sensibility (actually a short drive on Highway 447 to the Black Rock Desert, the site of the annual Burning Man Festival). With the permission of the Paiute Tribal Council, the gathering was held on the shores of Pyramid Lake, the site of a 1986 Grateful Dead concert. In the wake of the Symbiosis Gathering, international totality freaks prepare to be bathed in the next umbra at the Eclipse2012 Festival near Cairns in Far North Queensland, Australia, 10-16 November 2012.

The style of music that has been performed at these events is as diverse as that which is accommodated within the shifting soundscapes of psychedelia. In 1998, the compilation EclipseA Journey Of Permanence & Impermanence, released by Twisted Records in advance of the eclipse festival in Venezuela, included a few Goa and ethnodelic anthems such as that produced by Nomads of Dub (Simon Posford and Nick Barber) whose revelation in deep space “Spirals” sampled a radio communiqué from a remote observer reporting “vivid colours, different colours, glittering colours, … colours that are really indescribable, I’ve never seen colours like that”. The same album featured Doof’s “Balashwaar Baksheesh” which attempts to sonify the unheralded awe associated with something akin to a collective birth. A woman sampled announces that “I’ve never ever seen anything like it before in my life, the energy that everybody felt, they were grabbing onto something for the first time… It was amazing, the happiness that everyone felt.” Around midway, the track ascends in waves of ekstasis with everyone screaming like it’s 1965 and they’re being exposed to The Beatles live.

In 1999, Flying Rhino released the dub and downtempo influenced album Caribbean Eclipse inspired by the eclipse passing over Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea on the 26 February 1998. The album gathered some of the foremost artists in the psychedelic scene, including Posford, George Barker and Jewel Stanbridge (vocals), who as Binah, produced the momentous “Crescent Suns”. Like an audio postcard for the eclipse, the back of the CD holds the question: “Where will you be standing for the next solar eclipse of the sun?” Over ten years later, the compilation released by Rockdenashi Productionz, Black Sun — Eclipse in Japan for the July 2009 eclipse in southern Japan featured local darkpsy artists who, according to the liner notes, expressed their “understanding of the world in creative darkness.”

The common thread between these different psychedelic styles? The shared experience in a cosmic event: a cosmic vibe. In his memoirs, Bailey wrote of his total eclipse experience in 1842 when he mounted a telescope inside a building at the University in Pavia, Italy: “All I wanted was to be left alone during the whole time of the eclipse, being fully persuaded that nothing is so injurious to the making of accurate observations as the intrusion of unnecessary company.” Bailey was expressing a concern common to the singular research scientist, yet remote from the experience of the eclipse festival. For while the presence of other people may disrupt scientific measurements, in the immeasurable landscape of the vibe, “company” is paramount.

And it’s not only one’s close friends or family, but those others who’ve journeyed from far and wide to celebrate the event. Disembarking from a multitude of countries, speaking many languages, their heavenly bodies occupy that sacred space between the speaker stacks on board main floor motherships where they ascend to make interception with the sounds, the planets, and each other. On the line of totality, and in the direct line of astonishing music, total solar eclipse gatherings attract international habitués to a multicultural visionary assembly that is unparalleled planet wide. With the continuation of these events, the cosmic vibe carries through to the visionary arts events of the present.

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