The conscientious basher never rams anyone by total surprise.

LAST FALL at the Sound Central Festival, Afghanistan’s first annual rock fest, my friends and I got the chance to participate in what was likely the first mosh pit in Afghanistan. Splitting my head open and causing me to lose a shoe, moshing in Kabul alerted me that few alternative, even cultish traditions are confined to one culture. Violence is surely an international language, so why not the same for a little friendly, recreational violence?

If only someone were to put together a guide to moshing safely in dangerous places, not only for travelers but also for locals who are pioneering their first alternative concerts! Ask and ye shall receive. Here’s the first edition, brought to you by Matador & Humanitarian Bazaar: 6 steps to moshing safely in dangerous places. If you have your own tips or critiques to add, please join the discussion below. Let’s start easy:

What is moshing?

Moshing, rumored to have evolved at punk shows in the West, is the art of running in circles and smashing into friends and strangers in crowds of fans at live shows. It’s meant to heighten the enjoyment of favorite music with a natural endorphin and adrenaline rush. Though obviously controversial and not for everyone, moshing has finally made it to the world’s front lines. In Kabul, for example, even while rebels are attacking government ministries on one side of town, the local alternative crowd and its foreign allies are still getting together to process all the change they’re growing through over some loud, cathartic music in new local clubs.

Looking back at shows I’ve moshed at – a mild concussion at Metallica, landing in puke at Ministry, and my first crowd surf at Mr. Bungle – I recall not only some great hardcore dancing experiences but also a few ruined by thugs who were out for blood. On the road later in places like Iraq, Palestine, and Chechnya, I imagined with such political violence that maybe that kind of scene couldn’t, or maybe shouldn’t, exist there. But recently I’ve discovered that it does indeed and that moshers in tough places tend to be much more compassionate and considerate than their peers in the West, simply due to the underground nature of the ritual there.

Photo: Ted Van Pelt

1. Remember what you have to live for!

As Doug Moore writes in “Moshing in the spiral of silence,” unsafe and inconsiderate modes of moshing can be too violent, selfish, and cost many tamer fans their enjoyment of a show.

In fact, musicians ranging from Smashing Pumpkins — who actually lost fans to moshing accidents — to punk innovator Ian McKaye (of Fugazi) and Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theatre) have all spoken out against unsafe moshing.

Why mosh at all if it’s so dangerous? Well, like skateboarding, climbing, boxing, and a zillion other past times, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to take part in or even just watch, partly because it’s so risky. So rather than banning it, best to work at doing it more safely. Therefore, before lighting up your first mosh pit in a dangerous place, make sure you have medical insurance and follow and promote what we call “mosher’s etiquette,” which breaks down to a few rules of thumb:

2. Follow Mosher’s Etiquette!

Three simple rules: First, mosh only in areas where you’re not disturbing, injuring, or ruining the day for people who do not wish to mosh! Second, ram, slam, and throw only people who wish to be involved and only in such a way that they are not injured! Finally, if someone falls or is accidentally injured, immediately clear a space for them to get up and move away from the fray; help them up if you are near them. And if anyone needs medical attention, seek help right away.

3. Learn the basics of moshing.

Many are able to go to a show and spontaneously break in, but if you are new to moshing, or worried, or starting the first pits in a totally new alternative scene, here are the basics.

ELBOWS UP | Editor David Miller reminded me of good starting point. When entering the fray, make sure you have your elbows up to defend against surprises.

PIT-CRACKING | It works best if some mature, safety minded people start the mosh off. In underground scenes where most people know each other, a friend of the band performing will usually get a second friend to make sure that there is a solid “safe zone” for regular people to see the band up close, so that the mosh pit is in the right place. Once they’ve picked a place, they let people know that they are “cracking” open a mosh pit.

PIT GUARDIANS | At any event, especially if the concert is a mixed crowd, it works best to have the largest non-moshers form the fence of the mosh pit. That way when moshers get rammed they hit and bounce off these pit guardians without harming anyone outside the pit. Veteran moshers may recall getting knocked down only to look up at one of these guardians who reaches out a kind hand to help you up.

OGRES & TROLLS | Ogres, according to my own terminology, are the large dudes who often stand in the middle; they ready themselves to get rammed and then ram back, hard. But they tend to be otherwise polite and stay in one place. Then there are the trolls who are large dudes, often the muscle-bound type who march in circles waiting to be challenged – watch their elbows!

MOSHING CIRCLE | Ideally, moshers will as a group move in a hurricane-esque tidal circular fashion, rather than having the mosh turn chaotic. A moshing circle helps remind people who is in the mosh (those doing laps) and helps lead momentum of any ramming back into the mosh rather than out.

SLAM DANCING | This is really popular among young, brawny men. Most of the time, they will get very violent very quickly and if you’re not into it, just get out of the way. Rule of thumb is, if they are smiling it’s probably cool and they will be careful. If they look unusually serious or are really drunk, have a pit guardian throw their ass out.

PUSH MOSHING | Surprisingly, it is the push moshers who cause more fights than slam dancers. Slam dancers tend to make eye contact and smile at their target before slamming them, or slam people they know, most of the time. Push moshers act more like pin ball machine levers, waiting in one place with arms cocked until someone, anyone walks by, at which point they pop and push the person into the fray. Pit guardians should throw out anyone blocking the circular momentum or pushing or ramming anyone by total surprise.

Photo: Libertinus

4. Advanced level

Now that you understand the basics, you still want to do this? What are you crazy? Okay, well, notify next of kin before trying these:

CROWD SURFING | Crowd surfing is when, with the help of a number of friends, you climb onto a web of people’s upraised hands and attempt to glide forward, hoping that the people in front of you will also raise their hands to carry you. It works great with a beach ball, but it is very dangerous with humans. If your carriers do well they will propel you patiently and someone will warn the people ahead that you’re coming. While keeping focus on staying afloat you can sometimes get a brief view of the crowd and the stage, if not reaching the stage, before coming down.

But, be forewarned, probably ninety percent of crowd surfs end with someone throwing you into people who aren’t expecting it and you land on your head. By the way, I recall wanting really bad to do this at the Sound Central Afghan rock fest main event at Babur Gardens, but the stage was bordered by some mean concrete low rise walls certain to split someone’s head open. Gotta stay alive and healthy to enjoy.

WALL OF DEATH | Okay, don’t do this. But in case someone cheers for it, here’s the basic idea. The performers on stage ask everyone to open a column down the middle of the crowd. Then when the performer says, “go!”everyone from each side charges each other much like a battle scene in Game of Thrones. So, unless you want to have your head smashed like a grape, leave this one to legend.

5. Choose the right destination.

AFGHANISTAN | War zone for sure, but there are neighborhoods in the capitol, Kabul, where a seasoned traveler can enjoy alternative culture and social life. If you make it to Afghanistan and know how to get around safely, make sure to take part in the next Sound Central Festival planned for this September 2012. Either way, follow Sound Studies Projects which can connect you to the city’s first rock venues and alternative studios and their events.

Follow bands, as well. The most mosh-worthy include psychadelic metal band District Unknown, heavy rock band White Page, expat progressive punk band White City, industrial metal group Face Off, and others you can find following the festival. Fortunately NATO has Kabul secured enough for the time being that if you are in country and following the festival and Sound Studies projects, you can go ahead and attend events as long as you’re okay going through a search by armed security before you go in.

IRAN | If you are headed to Tehran or towns beyond, word is that any music you find in the formal stores is “total shit.” The capitol indeed has a thriving alternative rock and metal scene, but the government runs such mind-bogglingly strict laws on who can perform what where that the majority of the really innovative performers only play in studios and private parties. Those who write threatening lyrics or perform in public without permission may find themselves arrested or even charged in absentia. This is the scene that created exiled indie heroes Hypernova, Yellow Dogs, and The Casualty Process.

To catch up on the Iranian rock evolution, check out the exile label Bam Ahang and its director Babak Khiavchi’s blog. For heavier bands, follow a band of your taste at the Persian Metal blog. Then, when you’re in Tehran, if you’re lucky enough to make friends at the local tea house and earn their trust, ask them straight up where to find good music like you’ve heard online. If you’ve earned their trust, you might get an invite to an underground party. But beware, no foreign journalists allowed; the authorities might follow you to the party.

IRAQ | Many have followed the evolution of rock in Iraq since the premiere of Heavy Metal in Baghdad, VICE’s documentary about the thrash band, Acrassicauda. The Iraqi metallers have now relocated to New York where they have graduated to the global market. Nevertheless, Baghdad does indeed continue to have an alternative scene with live shows. However, recent attacks by militants against gays and emos have locked down the scene for the time being.

Whether you are in Baghdad now or plan to go in the future, your best bet if you don’t know Arabic is to follow the doom metal band Dog Faced Corpse. They’ve got a new album out and, although it’s the heaviest music in the country, they thrive in the scene where other alternative bands perform. Right now, Baghdad’s alternative nightlife is more or less a “gotta know somebody” world, so if you are planning ahead, your best bet is to get to know journalists and human rights activists on the ground. Once they trust you, you might get an invite. As for northern Iraq, Erbil is your best bet. It’s much safer up there, but rock, metal, and alternative is still mostly a “party at a friend’s house” tradition.

SYRIA | Now is obviously not a good time to travel in Syria. However, if you want to learn about Syrian music and plan ahead for when there is a relatively safe window for alternative culture, here are some names to know. Gene Band is a solid rock band that is still representing the Damascas alternative scene. Outside Syria, follow the rising star, Omar Offendum, who will surely be a leader in the country’s cultural evolution whenever its people overcome this war.

SOMALIA | Somalia is also still too risky for most travelers. In fact, the entire alternative scene still lives in exile, primarily in Minneapolis, Toronto, and Nairobi. Rock and metal are coming soon; for now the alternative is a Somali styleof hiphop. Be sure to follow our alliance’s Somali Sunrise Concert Tour series, with concert events hitting New York, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Nairobi, Galkayo, and Mogadishu this summer and fall.

CUBA | Although Cuba’s pretty safe, its status in the US of A as a rogue state helps its rebellious alternative and metal scene fit well with the rest of this guide. Our recommend is to check out Cuban thrash band, Escape. Filmmaker Tracey Noelle Luz is currently finishing up a documentary on the band’s story and how they aim to perform one day soon in the United States. Follow the doc and cause at Unblock the Rock.

SRI LANKA | Sri Lanka, despite its unresolved political situation, is starting to move beyond its civil war with much of the country very safe and gorgeous. Our recommendation for you to have a way into their rock and alternative scene is to follow rock band, Paranoid Earthling, a group that not only performs but produces huge events. They’re based in Kandy.

MOROCCO, EGYPT, & BEYOND | The previous go to guide for all this, is Mark Levine’s Heavy Metal Islam. Also, check out the Taqwacore scene, as well as Punks of the World (in Portugese).

6. Live to tell the story

By now, you may be asking, why is this idiot encouraging us not only to travel to a war zone or place where concerts are illegal, and to engage in violent, risky sado-masochistic behavior? Thanks for asking. Just to reiterate the disclaimers woven in above:

We at Matador and Humanitarian Bazaar do not want to encourage you to travel to war zones, places of repression, or pits of violence. However, a big however, if you are already from there, living there, or just got work to go there anyway, and you are already pursuing the arts of cuts and bruises such as skateboarding, climbing, et cetera, well, then here’s a guide to help you consider how to mosh safely, or whether to do it at all.

If you do manage to generate a good story of safely surviving a great concert experience in an unusual place, or if you have other advice we haven’t fit in here, please join the discussion below.

Peace, amplifiers, and stay safe!