THE GATHERING, NEW YEARS EVE 97/98 - A THUDEROUS SIX-ZONE EXPOSITION OF DANCE CULTURE, STAGED MILES FROM ANYWHERE, BANG ON TOP OF A POTENTIALLY DEADLY CAVING NETWORK, WHERE IT'S SEARING HOT BY DAY, AND COLD ENOUGH TO FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS POSSUM BY NIGHT. THIS YEAR THE REMOTE CANAAN DOWNS SITE WAS FILLED TO CAPACITY BY OVER 8,000 GROOVE-HUNGRY PLIGRIMS. WHY DID THEY BOTHER? RIPITUP DONS ITS THERMALS TO FIND OUT.
Who's going to The Gathering?
The Maxim-from-the-Prodigy lookalike singing Bob Marley songs on the rear deck of the Cook Strait Ferry is. So are the occupants of a lived-in van called "The Quantum Kumera". How about the half-naked sun-worshipper playing with devil sticks on a Nelson sidewalk, or the city girl tramping in high heels? Yup, one and all. Even on December 29, two days and 100 kilometres from The Gathering, the party has already started. A precognitive atmosphere permeates Zippy's, a funky Nelson veg-o cafe, with great lasagne and a vibrant clientele, whose dreadlocks, technicolour (yawn) clothing, and expressions of deep bliss (or devotion to cannabis) make it fairly obvious where they plan to see in 1998.
Horror-stories abound regading the day-long queue to get in to last year's event, and it is for this reason that the RipItUp touring party try to gain access on the night of the 30th, even though our small Japanese hatchback looks nothing like a housetruck - the only vehicles officially allowed early entry. Nevertheless we are not presented with any hassles, which is less than can be said for locals trying to use the road as per ususal. Even at this early stage a traffic problem is brewing, and it only gets worse the following day.
The main camping area is already a skeletal form of the transient city it will eventually become. Car stereos compete, tents are erected with varying degrees of competency, ageing buses crawl in search of a place to rest like ancient diesel-powered dinosaurs. Any eye contact is partnered with an enthusiastic smile, and road fatigue is soon replaced by expectation. Soon these people will no longer be strangers - they will be.... Gatherers!
ZONE 2: Dub/Hip Hop/Drum 'n' Bass
Soon after the entertainment begins proper at midday on December 31, the drum 'n' bass zone proves its popularity with a skilfully mixed selection of beats and live acts. The sound is loud and low in the marquee, and all present shake their collective booty amongst fluoro totem poles, six foot man-made tusks and other props that may have come from the Hercules art department. While creating some great vibes on New Year's Eve with Unitone Hi-Fi offshoot Soundproof, and Germany's Nonplace Urban Field, Zone 2 really goes off the following night. Pitch Black ease the crowd into their set with some deep slow rhythms, drawing their audience in before upping the pace and carrying them away. As always the duo look like they're having fun as well. But it's Salmonella Dub who are given the most fevered reception. Even though they're on late, and even though some punters may be feeling the effects of the night before, Christchurch's premier exponents of dub-with-a-twist play to a tent that is crammed to overflowing - those forced to watch from the side exit are subjected to a bizarre dose of Salmonella and jarring thuds from the Hardcore Zone next door. Older material and tracks from the Calming of the Drunken Monkey are performed to rapturous applause. There is definitely room for more dance-friendly bands at events such as this.
ZONE 3: Hardcore/Industrial
Bang bang bang bang bang bang grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Fairly straightforward this area - maximum beats per minute, with an enormous metal cage to prevent anyone escaping too quickly, and the odd live MC to help the dance victims achive an optimum state of epilepsy (as if that was necessary). Definitely the place to be if you needed waking up, or had a perverse desire to put your back out from dancing too hard. Wisely, Zone 3 did not operate during most of the daylight hours.
ZONE 4: House/Funk/Garage
Some wild ultra-violet wire mesh action entices at Zone 4's entrance, whilst the interior is resplendent with gracefully curving pillars, giving it the club-like feel the designers were no doubt in search of. There are inner tube seats out the back for spectators or casualties, a mini tramp set into the dancefloor in order to get a little higher, and of course large funk chunks spun by spunks. More than any other area, Zone 4 successfully recreates the atmosphere of a pumping party in someone's (very large) living room.
ZONE 5: Ambience
"This music captures you," is the word from one Gatherer inhabiting the large crater which houses the zone de la Ambience. Decked out with life-sized Japanese caricature statues, ornate shelters, and ringed with light boxes, Zone 5 succeeds in creating a sometimes eerie peace within its confines, in spite of the constant barrage of sound from other PAs. Definitely the location of choice if you want to recharge, get warm by a fire with people you don't know, and watch two (or was it three?) performers writhe mysteriously inside something that looked like it had been custom-made by Durex. All this with an underlay of drifting sonic caresses ideal for soothing body and mind after a dance-frenzy.
ZONE 6: Tribal
Drums, anyone? A bevy of humans sitting around a fire pounding on a variety of beatable objects is a primal and powerful spectacle and the air around Zone 6 is charged with an indefinable tension. Myself and a friend are sitting in awe in the dusk of New Year's Eve (as the temperature plummets following the disappearance of the sun), when a figure emerges almost soundlessly from the forest behind us. At least six foot if he wasn't crouching, the Gathering's own psychedelic shamen is striped in fluorescent paint, including his waist-length dreads and bare upper body.
RIU: Would it be alright if I took your photo?
Mr Shaman: "You cannot take a photo of my soul!"
RIU: (Remembering a few National Geographic documentaries) What if I don't take a photo of your eyes?
Mr Shaman: "No!"
RIU: Okay... what's your name?
Mr Shaman: ".....Rastafari."
And with that reverential full-stop, off he slides. If that kind of shit isn't worth the price of entry then I don't know what is.
ZONE 1: Techno/Trance
In combination with the enormous fire pit crater in front of it, Zone 1 is The Gathering's continuously beating heart. Moving past a 10 metre tower festooned with metal dishes, Gatherers are immediately subjected to enough booming noise to help anyone forget harrowing journeys, unemployment blues, or work next week, and get into the positive headspace that a crowd jumping around on bare earth seems to generate. At the centre stands the two-story DJ tower, crowned by a fan-powered mock fire, and guarded at its corners by four impressively unearthly papier-maché sentinels.
As the new year approaches, the whole area goes off. A procession of costumed stilt walkers makes its way to the the roaring fire pit, where performers are igniting poi, staffs, and other flammable paraphernalia. The fire freaks form a circle around the central blaze before spinning their way out to its perimeter. A bright-eyed hippie gentleman wows the crowd by juggling five electrically-lit red balls (UFO balls). Then, after half a dozen separate countdowns, we are suddenly in 1998. All smiles, spontaneous snogging ensues, and even the music is momentarily upstaged by the bang-and-flash of fireworks.
Cut to the morning of January 2. After walking into the forest to check the shrine of exchanged objects that has accumulated around a purple mushroom on a tree stump, it is time to assess the state of Zone 1's survivors. For some, 'dancing' has become the combination of a slow shuffle, a sleepy grin, and a thousand yard stare. Yet when an old track by The Orb is played, something is triggered and everyone is suddenly moving again - and all of a sudden the day seems utterly perfect.
The Gathering has been a resounding success. For 48 hours (and then some) Canaan Downs was more than the site for a party, it was a small town, where people ate, danced, smoked and consumed whatever they wanted, while treating each other and the environment with respect. All this without the need for police or (much) alcohol. The sense of community pervading the site by midday on the final day is hard to describe - you really 'had to be there'. Suffice to say that as we pack up and head back to the real world, it is a feeling that is instantly missed.