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TRAVEL: Post Soviet Goa

19 June 2014 | 6:58 pm | Kris Swales

Did you hear the one about the 'music journalist' who lobbed in to Paris Hilton's 'Ibiza of India' without doing any research?

Gather round folks, and bring some popcorn. It goes a little something like this...

Most of my overseas travel has revolved around music - discover event, file away news clipping or web link somewhere, plot and scheme, fly there, write about it, Profit (or at least subsidise beer expenses). 2002 - Berlin Love Parade and Benicassim. 2008 - Miami WMC and Coachella. 2009 - Underworld in Hong Kong. And so on and so forth.

This little jaunt to India was the first overseas pilgrimage I've made that isn't based around a music event, but a sporting one - specifically watching the might of Steve Smith and his mates in the Australian cricket team getting their arses handed to them by the Indians in the fourth test in New Delhi. You can read about my adventures there over at The Roar, if you're that way inclined (not that there's anything wrong with that, etc).

Still, there were some a musical reasons for being in India. Firstly, I'd been through a brief phase in my late teens where I could only deliver pizza for Eagle Boys while listening to sitar and tabla recitals in my car.

Secondly, The Beatles wrote a fair chunk of The White Album, including my all-time fave Blackbird, just up the road from Delhi in Rishikesh.

And thirdly, a scene from a dance music doco that I'd seen many years earlier (possibly Better Living Through Circuitry) had stuck in my head. A scene of hippies, on a Goa beach, dancing their dreads off to some cranking psychedelic trance sounds in broad daylight.

Was Hilton's Twitter statement that Goa was the 'Ibiza of India' true, or did some of the old Goa as (quite literally) blazed by the '60s/'70s hippie movement and '90s psy-trance pioneers remain? It was up to me to find out, then share my findings with an unsuspecting world.

I raced back from the desolate post-Skynet wasteland of Agra to my Delhi digs late one Thursday afternoon, booked my flight into Goa for the next evening, took to Expedia to book a decent looking hotel in the vague vicinity of the airport in Vasco da Gama, and arrived under cover of darkness to find myself staying somewhere near the centre of Bumfuck, Goa. Population? One bumbling hack with the smallest backpack in India.

It was the Goan equivalent of deciding to mount a serious assault on the nightclubs of Surfers Paradise, then setting up camp in Lismore. I looked to my copy of Paul Oakenfold's 2011 reboot of The Goa Mix for comfort, to find that only one track from the two discs had actually synced to my iPhone. This didn't bode well.

I was staying in Betalbatim, halfway between the gutter and the stars. The nearest beach centre was Colva, a nondescript shorefront with barely measurable waves and beach bar/restaurants (henceforth known as shacks) bearing Anglo monikers like Bob's and Benny's and Luke's Place and, umm, Dominick's. Because at some stage in the past decade the Russians have discovered Goa in earnest, and their numbers far outweigh any other tourist group on the 100 kilometre strip.

I checked the Goa Times for any sign of local gigs (all manner of Google searches proving fruitless), and only found the local franchise of DJ Sasha playing at Bikini Brunch (presumably all-you-can-eat) on Sunday. It seemed this wasn't the place for me, so I took Saturday off from the world and shifted further south on Sunday.

Palolem Beach - aka paradise. Where the sand is lined by beach shacks under an endless row of palm trees; where shore breaks just big enough to bodysurf roll in all day long; where nubile Russians work on their tans, then read books, then work on their tans, then swim, and repeat until the end of time. I could see why Jason Bourne hid out here for a while.

The shacks are named after other exotic locales, like Cuba and Havana and the Gold Coast's own Cocktails and Dreams. I plumped for Sunday sunset at Cafe Del Mar, but it seems to be Jose Padilla's night off the decks - the tuneage pumping out sounds like Erick Morillo tribal electro circa-2006, though it turns out to be an Ibiza 2012 compilation playing on shuffle. Perhaps Paris was onto something?

I discover a flyer for a bonfire party happening later that night at Cozy Nook, with "full sound" and "fully stocked bar". The flyer artwork was a little on the simple side, but perhaps Goan promoters like to keep things understated?

The venue turned out not to be the stretch of beach I was pointed towards, but a venue made from a series of stone huts nearby - and the word "bonfire" was something of an overstatement. The opening DJ didn't fill me with great hope either, leaping between tracks that appeared to be ripped out of other people's mixes, but then the unmistakable bubbling acid synths of Hardfloor's monstrous Acperience 1 reared their head and my ears pricked up... until it was slammed straight into Gangnam Style. This could get ugly.

I crossed paths with an English gent at the bar who roughly fit the original Goa hippie mould. Phil from Northampton was in his 50s, with shaved sides and black dreads pulled back tight under a baseball cap; a recovering drug addict who was now a self-confessed "born-again Christian" on a "mission from God", and who clearly remembers moments from his past lives. Phil was here for his fifth consecutive season for reasons unclear, before moving on to his true purpose of helping out the needy in Agra. I never quite did get to the bottom of how he was going to do that, but his heart seemed to be in the right place.

We were joined by a businessman from Oman, who sounded like a not pompous version of J Peterman from Seinfeld, who'd come here to unwind for Easter. Phil talked about the changing face of the party scene here, and the silent discos that happen at the south end of the beach on Saturdays - I'd missed the end of the sixth season by one day. (MISSED GIG COUNT: 1!)

The second DJ had managed to build up a little bit of a dancefloor, and definitely had the girls dancing if not the chinstrokers (i.e. me) impressed. His music taste was impeccable, with classics from Man With The Red Face to Moloko - Sing It Back (Mousse T's Feel Love Remix) to, umm, Deep Forest. This was interspersed with smatterings of deep driving gear, and his programming was all over the place but at least he was mixing. Then he dropped the Jason Nevins remix of Katy Perry's I Kissed A Girl.

I'm the world's biggest KP fan (in the sense that most other Katy Catz are half my size), but this was more Gold Coast than Goa so I took my cue to leave...

The next day at the southern end of Palolem I'm approached by Lola, a young bazaar worker. She must be in her early 20s, usually works in a field in Karnataka south-east of here, but comes up to Palolem for the winter/spring tourist season to work at the family bazaar. She starts work at 9am and works through until 10pm every night, when she goes home to look after her children, cook and clean.

The tourist season is dying down - today has been particularly slow. She invites me to her shop. I'm trying to divest myself of stuff I don't need; Lola's very existence relies on selling stuff to people like me. She needs to sell me stuff more than I don't need it. I buy a silk shawl. It's a deep green and the pattern is lovely.

Does she go to the parties down here? "Headphone parties," says her brother, motioning to nearby Neptune Point.

But what about Lola? She shakes her head.

"What do you do for fun then?"

"I don't have time. I go home to cook and clean.

It's time for me to move north. Above & Beyond must've named their label Anjunabeats for a reason, so let's see what this Anjuna Beach place has to offer.

The Anjuna Flea Market felt like the final day of the Woodford Folk Festival, if Woodford was whacked up to the eyeballs on chai-flavoured peptides.

The Market is still trading on the glories of days gone by, when the hippie trailblazers used it as the place to flog what they'd found on their travels. The tourist season is petering out, the aisles aren't as full as the stall holders would like, and some of their arm-grabbing sales tactics are quite forceful. Some unremarkable Goa trance CDs were being sold at the stalls. At least I was on the right track.

I spotted the Canberra Raiders' mascot Victor The Viking, and snapped a photo of him as proof that it wasn't a flashback to that time I took acid at a Fitzroy band squat and ended up bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Goldblum mid-metamorphosis in The Fly.

The distant sound of live drums led me to the beach and Cafe Looda. A band was rocking out on a platform underneath a thatched roof with the ocean as their backdrop, roaring through a post-grunge cover of Lenny Kravitz's Fly Away as sung by an actually-kinda-sexy middle-aged Tinkerbell. Because really, who else would a Goa covers band be fronted by?

I continued south along a fairly dirty and chopped-up beach, over some rocks and hastily laid timber planks, and arrived at scene mainstay Curlie's. If Goa beach shacks ever enter the superclub era, Curlie's will be seen as their Godfather. It's a multi-level establishment with deck chairs at ocean level, stairs up to a mass of tables and chairs serviced by a well-stocked bar and restaurant serving all sorts of cuisine, then upstairs to a lounge and rave cave which is just like a turn of the century chill room back home - and with all the trappings.

I picked the brains of my waiter, a longtime local - seems I missed a beach party at next door's Shiva Valley shack by a day (MISSED GIG COUNT: 2!). He told me in his American-tinged English ("I watch a lot of Hollywood movies") that "it didn't go as they'd planned" anyway, some mixed explanation about school exams being on and parents being sentimental and "it's all just bullshit man". O-kaaaaaay.

He did assure me that the regular Thursday night thang at Curlie's would be on tomorrow, so it was straight into the diary. At last, my Goa psy pilgrimage was nearing completion...

After hearing some low slung house (sans DJs) piping out of the other beach shacks, it was back to Cafe Looda, where Every Live Funk Band You've Ever Heard suddenly morphed into Goa's Ozric Tentacles with the addition of tabla and electric sitar. I went in for a closer look and heard a familiar accent.

Swales: "Am I in the Australian section?"

Kiwis: "No, Kiwis!"

The group of three were all late-twenties - the PR agent who'd tossed in her Auckland gig to volunteer in a school two beaches south in Calungate, and the couple taking seven weeks off from the job on the cruise run between Miami and the Caribbean. The couple were staying in extravagant six star accom with a 60-inch LED, here because of Goa's rep as Indian party central. He spruiks for luxury watch and jewellery brands on the ship, and sends the passengers off to the best places to buy on the islands like some sort of Anthony Robbins of cruise liner retail.

Their destination after this was Club Cubana, and he said I was welcome provided I didn't act "creepy". Umm, don't let the world's worst moustache put you off dude, I just haven't come to India to work on my personal hygiene.

You certainly can't miss Cubana from a distance, with a spiralling spotlight dominating the night sky from its vantage point on top of a hill 2km back from Anjuna. I paid the 800 rupees (roughly $15) for entry as part of a 'couple' with the single girl, who walked in for free. ('Stags' and local guys are nowhere to be seen). I eventually worked out that the door fee includes free booze, and as much of it as I could drink. RSA, eat a bag of dicks.

Club Cubana looks like it was once a magnificent villa that has been dropped into the middle of the jungle treehouse of the Lost Boys in PJ Hogan's Peter Pan, had three terracotta balconies (one with pool) attached to it and covered with lounges, then been converted into a den of western pleasure with a few local ladies there to witness the cultural event. (It's also the only destination on this trip that I didn't bring my camera.)

When we found our way to the dancefloor it was pretty stock main room house fare. There's a Somebody That I Used To Know remix that everyone sings; the DJ drops Havana Brown's We Run The Night, and I dance because it would be un-Australian not to.

Shit started to get weird. The couple started to fight about the sweet nothings that couples fight about while travelling. The tiny, stunning, dangerous blonde half of the couple and I did a mock-choreographed dance to Beyonce's Single Ladies, then she tried to foist me upon a Russian dancing nearby, who promptly disappeared up the staircase wrapped around the dancefloor to the mezzanine level.

The single girl of the group was there to win on, fended off multiple suitors, then got a message across to me from the guy half that she definitely wasn't going home with me. I was all like "I really don't care man, I'm just here to check out the club and have a good time" and it wasn't a complete lie.

A barely barely-legal Russian girl interpretive fuck-danced beside us, grabbing a Bud from the guy half and swigging it messily before returning to her solo drunken reverie.

It was around 1am. The mood had shifted, the music was tripe, there were now 1500-plus in the club, and it was decided a retreat was in order. Our original shared taxi pulled over when the driver refused the agreed 400 rupee fare to take us all home to different beaches. My new friends argued the toss over what amounted to $1, we get booted out and blacklisted by every other taxi driver in earshot, and the kiwis said "sorry Kris, you're on your own" and disappeared into the night.

I paid 500 rupees for the route that cost me 400 to get here, and waved goodbye to Club Cubana's final night of the 2013 season.

Curlie's, I sincerely hope your Thursday night vibe is more inspiring.

This week's regular Thursday night psy party at Curlie's was a non-event. The Rave Cave's lights are on, with some deep and dark 120bpm prog throbbing selfishly away out of the system, but no one is home - either behind the decks, or on the dancefloor.

The next morning I returned for breakfast, and found a poster taped to a nearby tree. A psy gig had also happened several beaches north last night. (MISSED GIG COUNT: 3!)

This was starting to get just a bit fucking ridiculous - one night left on the Goa beaches, and barely a squiggly bassline to point a stick at. I was going to find myself a party for the night or die trying, which meant hiring a scooter and doing the rounds of the nearby beaches in the hope of finding another pole poster lead.

Whatever visions or expectations you have of Goa are probably wrong. There are (mostly) pristine stretches of sand and beach shacks galore, but step inland from the shore of Palolem or Anjuna and you're right back in rural India. A glitter strip a la Miami or the Gold Coast this most certainly ain't.

Farmers sell their stock from tin sheds 300 metres from the beach breaks. Wild boar dart out from behind aluminium siding, dodging goats on their way. Dirt paths turn into laneways turn into winding single file bitumen tracks turn into dual lane roads, which wind through fields that look like the set of Tropic Thunder. The countryside is dotted with Hindu temples, Christian churches and roadside chapels. Only the central capital Panaji feels anything like India's major city centres.

I drove my scooter a few Ks north and found a place that I'd read about - Club 9 Bar at South Vagator. Paydirt. There's a techno party on tonight, the "The Last Pirate Techno Shot Of The Season" to be precise.

Well arr-me-fukn-hearties! Especially when you take into account I spied another flyer there for a trance party that had happened last night (MISSED GIG COUNT: 4!), another trance party happening at nearby Hill Top around the time I was touching down in Mumbai in two days (MISSED GIG COUNT: 5!), and the real clincher - an Easter Saturday gig at Hill Top featuring DJ sets from Juno Reactor and Ace Ventura (MISSED GIG COUNT: 6!), which happened right around the time I was sitting in Bumfuck, Goa pulling my dick last weekend. Siiiiigh.

At the northern end of Goa, I spotted a massive billboard for, the local version of an events and entertainment guide. Where the fuck was this billboard when I needed it a week ago?

The sign was erected on a large plain, which a small tent city had began to assemble around. I stopped to snap it because this scene, to me, was the very definition of the contrasts of India. The inhabitants of the tents hurried out to see me. I handed the young boy a note for his family. They were all smiling. I scooted away, again completely bewildered by this country.

Sunset was the signal to return to 9 Bar. Spaced-out techno was emerging from within its walls, and loudly. I walked inside, down a narrow cave-like corridor, to find not just a bar but a fully-fledged club space.

If there'd been a nightclub in The Flintstones, plonked on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea with a dusty dancefloor covered by coloured sashes flowing out from a central maypole, then Club 9 Bar would be the place. The opening DJ played to tumbleweeds not long after the 4pm doors, with a few of his entourage dotting the seating that surrounded the floor.

A smattering of hardy souls slowly filtered onto the dust bowl, with 50 people on a floor fit for 3000 by 7:30pm. The DJ's sound was reminiscent of Dubfire - crisp hats, off-beat one-note basslines, and soundscapes generally more appropriate for 4am K-hole expeditions than this early in proceedings. But it worked, and it worked well, and I didn't care because OMFG I'd finally found some tunes I could dance to in a non-ironic fashion.

The next DJ was better, taking things into more psychedelic realms; techno as constructed by producers who like to explore the full stereo spectrum with random hisses, blips and swirls once they've established the basics. The mixing was rudimentary, the tuneage was solid, the vibe was picking up.

An impossibly skinny group of Russian girls came, danced like model extras in a film about coke-dealing loan sharks, and disappeared. A fire twirler performed at the rear of the dancefloor, neatly dividing the attention of the 300-odd attendees between herself and the DJ. A Japanese tourist and two locals passed a chillum around in the lounge area. A British guy chuckled to himself as his mate attempted to tune a Russian whose friend quickly escaped to the dancefloor.

As I danced, eyes closed and now lost in the vibe, a hand tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see a forty-something gent, dressed in long pants and a floppy hat, the lean and tanned body under his thick covering of hair giving him away as a local inhabitant. He's Italian, has been living here for 18 months, and between his broken English and my never-working Italian, we got nowhere fast.

"Is this the best club in Goa?" I asked, and he shook his head. "Noooo," he said, reaching for his pocket and pulling out a half-sized business card. In the dark I could make out the words "NO set timings", "Spontaneous sessions", and "follow the SIGN" with a squiggle next to it rather than an address.

I asked what sort of music is played there and when. "Not Goa music," he muttered, adding something about German and Portuguese DJs before setting himself up as if he was riding the tube at Pipeline. "I want to surf this music in, maaaan..."

At 10pm sharp the party shut down, Goa's reputation as a haven for outdoor all-nighters long since clamped down upon by the authorities. I wandered the dancefloor trying to pick up whether there was another party to head to, but there was still music coming from somewhere... an indoor space that I'd somehow missed until now. Not just a club, but another fully-themed rave cave with glow painted columns, a fluorescent stairway to somewhere important painted on a wall, and DJ booth accessorised with a goddess figure over the DJ.

The pirate behind the decks looked suspiciously like Scott Walker (the Brisbane DJ, not his Sydney equivalent or veteran troubadour namesake), and his music was doing the business - a mixture of straight techno grooves, progressive psy and rolling arpeggiated synth sounds that ensures the party ship inside sails a steady course. Even a faltering mixer and two minutes of dead air while it was replaced didn't slow things down.

The crowd was a smattering of tourists, rusted-on hippie expats in the 25-45 demo who appeared to have settled here from all over, and (unlike Club Cubana) plenty of Indian guys. The majority of the locals were in eyes wide shut mode, happily losing themselves to the music in much the same way as I have since I discovered the "dance like you're trying to get somewhere" style at my first rave in '95. But there's always "that guy" who spoils the party - in this case a stocky Indian gent in Miami Beach t-shirt and cut-off white pants who insisted on dancing away from the decks and directly in front of others on the floor, eventually attempting to latch onto one of the hippie girls with predictable crash-and-burn results.

It's incredibly alienating flying solo in a clubbing environment when your language is in the minority. Snatches of Italian and French and Portuguese and Russian and plenty of the local tongue were everywhere, but finding an English-speaking group to ingratiate myself into proved difficult. Even this surly jerk, who much prefers to do his talking in important places like the Internet, finds it a little tough being in the middle of a dancefloor with no one to turn to and say "TUUUUUUUNE!" when the need arises (as it often does).

The Goan Scott Walker cleared the decks, replaced by a chap kicking the techno rollers up to that no-mans-land of tempos circa 140bpm. You know the one - you can't quite lock into a halftime groove, but can't leap about on the beat either.

It was time to smoke bomb out of there.

I awoke the next morning and fished the Italian's flyer out of my wallet. Cirrus Goa was the place, which I investigated on Facebook to see when they might have something happening soon. Photos of past events showed DJs at performing outdoors, in what appeared to be a commune type environment... and there was a status update hinting that a party had kicked off there at 9pm last night.

Missed Parties Count: a far from magnificent 7!

And that, patient readers, is the one about the 'music journalist' who lobbed in to Paris Hilton's 'Ibiza of India' without doing any research.

The moral of the story? If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Especially in a country where it's impossible to Be Prepared.