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In Electronic Awakening, director Andrew Johner lifts the veil on an underground spiritual movement that has developed within electronic music cultures worldwide.

I’LL ADMIT: I never really “got” EDM (electronic dance music) until my first visit to Burning Man in 2009.

I had, of course, known about rave culture for many years, though somehow managed to navigate my youth without ever attending one. Meanwhile, I’d been pursuing my own spiritual path through Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Yoga.

It took the dusty playa of Black Rock City to invoke the felt experience of dance floor transcendence, a deep inner-knowing that I’ve been able to cultivate in the years since, and has informed my own pursuit of art, activism, spirituality, and community. This fusion has been given the label “neo-tribal” to signify a return to ways of being rooted in the past, but at a higher complexity.

And so it was with great interest that I came across AC Johner’s ethnographic documentary Electronic Awakening, which aims to chronicle and illuminate this emergent phenomenon. The trailer below offers a teaser, and is followed by a provocative interview with the director.

MN: How do you define the term “neo-tribalism”? What does it mean to be a neo-tribalist?

ACJ: Neo-tribalism is a term I was originally using to define much of the subculture arising out of festival and psychedelic culture. If one would look at the fashion alone, much of it incorporates garments made from leather, feathers, and fur — it’s an archaic look with a modern spin to it.

While much of the ethos coming out of the festival culture seems to resurrect the magical consciousness of ancient tribal cultures — a return to a form of nature worship, group cohesion through collective ecstatic dance practices — beyond the ideas these contemporary groups seem to be promoting, it does not seem to have moved too far beyond fashion.

For many of these people it’s about identification with a group. And mimicking archaic cultures and traditions is a form of identification, not only with each other but with traditions that they would otherwise have zero connection with. Neo-Tribalism is a about weaving together, and creatively reformulating, identity and a worldview out of the remnants of the past.

In your opinion, what is the relationship between neo-tribalism and electronic dance culture?

Director Andrew Johner

From my research, part of the evolution of the electronic music community was when they began taking the parties outdoors. Out on the West Coast of the United States this happened around the time that police terrorization was making it difficult to host underground parties in urban locations.

Another reason was the commercialization of the rave scene that was expanding the audience of the party to uncontrollable numbers, and also attracting many who did not have the same intentions towards community and group transcendence. Many felt it necessary to protect what it was they had discovered at the events by removing the party from the cities, and taking it outdoors, to remote locations.

When these smaller, more communal events began happening outdoors, the attendees began to make a connection between their dance experience and the natural environment around them. While psychedelic culture is already about the modernization of ancient shamanic and nature worship practices, with the emergence of outdoor electronic parties it’s obvious that the culture began evolving in this direction towards neo-tribalism.

What is the shadow side of this emergent culture and how has the community dealt with it?

The shadow side essentially led to the downfall of the rave scene back in the nineties. I would not look at this as a shadow side of the culture — the culture is as much in the shadow as it is in the light. I don’t exactly see it as having two sides; instead I see it as an intrinsic aspect of the culture. People have drug overdoses, develop addictions, end up in hospitals, psych wards, and die occasionally.

EDM culture is like an extreme sport, filled with many pitfalls and possible dangers. However, I don’t necessarily see this as a negative thing. The rave culture is testing the boundaries of human culture and societal development, and they would not be pushing the envelope if it wasn’t dangerous. Anything that is attempting to change the direction of human society is going to be filled with extreme amounts of potential danger. The danger is part of the excitement, and the mystery, which serves as a strange attractor moving patrons of this community ever onward in their evolution as a culture.

One criticism of this new culture is that they appropriate other, more ancient forms, without truly understanding or keeping the lineage systems necessary to keep the wisdom intact. Shamanism is an example — in the past, to become a shaman would take years of study with a master. Now you can take a weekend workshop. What do you feel about this critique?

I think that they are in a process of learning about all these things. While they seem to be collectively engaging in a form of self-mastery of more ancient shamanic wisdom, at the moment it can sometimes seem no more a part of their costume than their blinking LED lights and phosphorescent fur. It’s about building identity for many. However, some are authentically attempting to retranslate this information for the modern era — that’s where I feel the real work and purpose of this culture lies.

While they may not be keeping true to any one particular teaching, and possibly pulling several pieces of multiple traditions together, this open-sourced mentality towards spiritual translation is what allows for novelty in perspective, and the creation of new worldviews incorporating our modern technological and information-driven culture.

What does the future of neo-tribalism look like to you? What will be its impact on society and our age of transition?

It’s hard to say if it will change anyone but these people. As we have witnessed in history the hippie movement of the 1960s came and went, seemingly destroying itself before the envisioned utopia could come into full fruition. This is the same thing that happened to the rave scene in the ’90s.

This open-sourced mentality towards spiritual translation is what allows for novelty in perspective, and the creation of new worldviews incorporating our modern technological and information-driven culture.

However, if we look at the electronic music movement as being a downstream evolution of the 1960s, we can have the perspective that these are not multiple cultures coming together then dissipating, but instead one formation that has been evolving over the decades as a result of the discovery of LSD by modern society, and continued psychedelic influence.

Where is it going? It may always be a fringe movement, playing the same role as the shaman in the village, living as the outcast far away from the village. However, while living on the edge of the village, the shaman was still the medium between the community and the world of spirits, he was the teacher, the orator, and the protector of myth and the culture of the village; he was the destroyer and re-translator of the story as well.

Perhaps this is the role of EDM and psychedelic culture, to reawaken this purpose within our Westernized and globalized society.

[Editor's note: To learn more about Electronic Awakening and watch online, visit Electronic Awakening.]

What do you think of the neo-tribal culture? Share your thoughts in the comments!

About The Author

Ian MacKenzie

Ian MacKenzie is the founder and former editor of Brave New Traveler. He is Head of Video at Matador Network. Ian is also an independent filmmaker, with his first feature (One Week Job) released in 2010. His more recent projects include Sacred Economics and Occupy Love.

  • David Miller

    sweet.

  • Nick Rowlands

    Zippies! Isn’t that what Fraser Clark was calling this subculture way back in the 90s? I circled around the periphery in one form or another for years, but have been out the loop for longer. Based on the interview above, it doesn’t sound as though there’s been much movement forwards, though I’m in no position to judge and that may be unfair.

    “While they may not be keeping true to any one particular teaching, and possibly pulling several pieces of multiple traditions together, this open-sourced mentality towards spiritual translation is what allows for novelty in perspective, and the creation of new worldviews incorporating our modern technological and information-driven culture.” This is an interesting point, and I agree that some sort of techno-mythological synthesis is long overdue, and probably very necessary. (Though without rigorous foundations of some sort it’s possible to get borne away on a tide of confusion. But perhaps that doesn’t matter.)

    It’s hard to see this being any more than a fringe movement. (I don’t know that this matters, either?) There are too many negative preconceptions to overcome before mainstream acceptance: dance music, drugs, ‘neo’, youth, and so on. People are scared by what they don’t (want to) understand.

    A good start might be to legalize systematic research into psychedelics.

    • Sharon Miro

      My hurst just reading this and remembering the 60′s. There is nothing new here, except for the size of the electronics.

    • Sharon Miro

      Of course, I meant to write ‘My head hurts” but my synapses lapsed some where around 1974…

    • Ian MacKenzie

      Thanks for the comments. I’ve come to believe that transformation is cyclical. The 60′s was obviously a major shirt towards this new culture, and yet it was met with an equal amount of resistance from the status quo, and eventually, its own hubris. After a swing back through the 80′s/90′s we are now seeing it re-emerge, this time at a higher frequency. Not only that, there is a fusion with the networked, open-source intelligence of the web… my guess is we ain’t seen nothing yet.

    • Nick Rowlands

      Yes to the cyclical nature of transformation. Did you ever encounter Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics theory of evolution? Worth poking at, if not. And yes to the significance of the “fusion with the networked, open-source intelligence of the web” — which is a wonderful way of putting it, and much better than I could have. Thanks!

  • Merve Ko

    I believe this movement is going be huge in near future, attrackting loads of wannabes also. It should be enjoyed as an underground culture that it is now. I live in New York and desperately looking around for psy-trance parties but there seems to be only a few…

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