Dancing to a different beat
On New Year's Eve thousands will celebrate the new sounds of techno and trance music at a concert that's attracted international acclaim. Anna Fyfe meets the organisers.
IMAGINE dancing in a meadow surrounded by an alpine beech forest, with huge limestone formations and an expanse of sky providing the backdrop.
It was reality for about 5000 people who travelled from around New Zealand to Canaan Downs on Takaka Hill, near Nelson, last New Year's Eve to attend a dance festival called The Gathering.
The two-day event is to be held again this year. Spokesman Grant Smithies says it's the biggest celebration of dance music in New Zealand and has enough prestige to be mentioned in Britain's Face magazine.
Over 48 hours, five stages around Canaan Downs will feature 200 DJs from New Zealand, Britain, Japan and Germany. Musical styles include dub, hip-hop, reggae, drum and bass, trance, techno, house and funk.
If these sound unfamiliar, it's probably an indication of the changing youth culture which is turning away from guitar-oriented sounds to those of a more electronic nature.
"It's a significant thing for New Zealanders that people are starting to participate in the vibe of dance music," Smithies says. "New Zealand men used to be the type that needed to get drunk before they would dance. Even then it would be a sort of shuffle from side to side. The main difference between the dance culture and guitar culture is participation."
An example of dance sounds seeping into the mainstream can be found in the techno or jungle beats heard behind many of today's radio and television advertisements.
"You also get dinosaur acts like David Bowie putting jungle beats behind their music in an effort to modernise it," says Smithies. "Rock'n'roll just keeps getting recycled and this is music that hasn't revolved round again, so it's a sort of shock-of-the-new."
Electronic dance music ignores the "cult of personality" found in rock genres, he says. "It's easy for publicists to push rock when magazines can be filled with what the Gallagher brothers (from Oasis) are up to - it's a lot more saleable than dance music. The bottom line with dance music is the tune and there may be five or six different names behind it. It's not sold on the personality."
DJ Stinky Jim from the group Soundproof played at The Gathering last year with the now-defunct Unitone HiFi. "There were just so many good vibes," he says. "There was a good, responsive crowd who were prepared to check out the different things that were there." He doesn't think people like being pigeonholed any more by the style of music they listen to. "It's not like, if you're wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt then that's you."
With the rise of rock/dance bands such as the Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, dance music is getting to the masses. According to Stinky Jim, The Gathering is proof of the growing popularity of dance music. He says it is no more threatening than Opera in the Park. "It's just several thousand people involved in dance music getting together, dancing, playing and deejaying - a meeting of those who are interested in music, not money," he says. "DJs who are interested in the glamour or their egos will not be there."
Other features of the event include an on-site cinema, 20 cafe and food sites, live theatre and stunning visual effects including robo-scans, a laser show and synchronised video wall.
Probably the most significant feature of The Gathering is that it is alcohol-free. Last year there was minimum police presence and police were happy for organisers to arrange their own security.
Stinky Jim says the lack of alcohol was a big factor in the peacefulness of The Gathering. "I mean, they weren't stopping people bringing six beers in, but eight six-packs would have been a bit different. Not having alcohol means that a majority of the people who are going to cause problems stay away - so before you get past the gate you've cut half the problems out," he says. "There's nothing to get aggro about - there's also a real sense of social responsibility with people walking an extra 100 metres to put rubbish in the bin."
Detective Senior Sergeant Wayne Stringer of Motueka said last year's event was extremely well-run and there were no objections from police to this year's event. There will be no police presence this year, merely a base from which police can monitor the event.
The Gathering, says Mr Stringer, provides a chance for a different sort of policing philosophy whereby people look after each other. "You're bound to get confrontation if you have uniformed police there, but if you've got one person spoiling it for the other seven or eight thousand who are there to have a good time, they will prevent it."
He said alcohol was not a problem at last year's event, but police were aware of some drug use, especially acid. Things like that are difficult to police, he says, although responsible measures have been taken by organisers, such as advertising against the use of drugs and alcohol. "This year there will also be a paramedic team, quiet areas for people to rest and a specially psyche-trained team," he says.
* The Gathering begins at midday on December 31 and runs to January 2
CAPTION: GRANT ELLIS Above, the dance scene has been popular overseas for more than 10 years but retains an underground status in New Zealand. Right, fans take time out to relax at The Gathering which is alcohol-free.