CYBERSAFARI: The Kids Are Raving Alright

[If you think a 'rave' is just another word for the open-house 'party' of the Seventies and Eighties, think again. HILARY PRENDINI TOFFOLI donned cyberpunk gear to explore the phenomena at close quarters.]

It's 3am and I'm in the throbbing, dark heart of a one-night rave encampment held at a disused warehouse in Woodstock. I'm temporarily bivouacked in what is called the chill-out area, a vast space separate from the rest of what's happening, and covered by a tarpaulin canopy. Its fractionally quieter here than anywhere else. I'm sitting on mounds of fabric offcuts that cover the floor, watching crowds of ravers who wander through on a trail of railway sleepers.

It's cosier than it sounds, with some jolly attempts at fluorescent and shiny decor, but I can't help feeling like a jaded geriatric drop in a teenage ocean. The kids squat, lie, kneel and generally slump around. And I mean kids. Some could be as young as 15.

They're mellowing-out, which means being positive about having lost 20 percent of their hearing for the cause, before heading back to lose some more on the dance floor. Dance floor? It looks more like mass hypnosis. Machine-gunned by strobe and pierced by lasers, rapturous hordes bob up and down, worshipping the godhead lighting machines, all to the depersonalised dush-duh-duh-dush-dush-dush of computer-created music pounding out at the rate of more than 150 beats a minute.

Why do they love it so much? "You stand here on this dance floor and its like a tribe coming together," a kid complete with sweatband shouts in my ear, in-between gulps from his water-bottle. "You're waiting for something to happen and then when the lasers come out, its like space making contact with earth, the hand of friendship. Did you know this music attracts UFOs?" Is he having old me on, or is he on something? The theme tonight is UFOs, so maybe that's it.

None of this feels very Cape Town, but that's the point, as I discovered in the flier for tonight's event that I picked up in a rave boutique in Church Street. In four pages of emotionally-loaded hype speak and techno jargon, starting with a fiery apocalyptic image of Stonehenge at sunset, the organisers, Vortex, advertise "a meeting of the tribes and techno and explore the mystical shamanic significance of the winter solstice", calling on ravers to come and "tap into this magical time period" like the "countless civilisations" who have "worshipped these days of power". Wow.

Scheduled mysteries of the universe tonight are numerous, including aliens, brain machines, a cyber-circus, a journey to the furthest star and a trans-Atlantic linkup with "UN Peace Day in San Francisco". Ravers pay heavily for all this. Tonight entrance is R25, R5 less than they pay in Johannesburg, but crippling for your average Cape Town kid. But not a lot of money when compared to the R120 to R150 ravers fork out for their substance of choice, Ecstasy. The organisers are at pains to point out that "only eight percent" of ravers are into drugs, but how they come upon this arbitrary figure is beyond me.

Anyway, cost, it seems, is of little import to the more than 2000 ravers here tonight. Night club owners have come to accept the inevitable and simply don't open on rave nights: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. To make sure they get their money's worth, many of the ravers will stay until 10am, when they will be turfed off the premises by the organisers bouncers.

In Johannesburg, raves occur more frequently than in Cape Town, but because of this Jo'burg rave are not as well-attended as the Cape Town variety. The country's biggest rave, according to organisers Pharcyde, was held at Cape Town Waterfront's A-berth earlier this year - 6 500 kids attended.

This is my first rave. It comes nowhere near the depths of debauchery and zombiedom I'd been led to expect from non-ravers who have raver friends or relatives. "Its a total drug-scene. They're all on uppers," claimed an accountancy student. "There's something very sinister about an event that's never held in the same place. What are they hiding? Also they don't advertise and yet get thousands of kids. Word goes round in secret." A 48 year-old father who'se obviously never seen the posters or the banner that Pharcyde flew above the city.

"I think they're all brain-dead from that awful computer music" a 21 year-old secretary.

"My daughter says everyone dances alone. What's wrong with these guys? Are they all homos?" A 52-year-old father and Frank Sinatra fan.

I'm not sure what I was expecting. Scruffball drop-outs? Heavy teenage aggro? Rampant fornication? I don't know, but I certainly wasn't expecting this sane, friendly crowd of fresh-faced kids who glow in the dark and sport bizarre items like pollution masks, satchels, water pistols and teenybopper hair clips that keep their cropped heads neat. Is it no longer cool to be bad? Time for kids to have fun again?

I get some essential input from a nice clean computer programmer called Freddie Bell. He's an obsessive raver: his global communications on the subject are in the Internet's Spirit of Raving archives in a section called Hyperreal. He eagerly expounds the rave creed, luminous with joy at his powers of clarity.

I discover that rave, for the hard core at least, is a hellavuh lot more than just some new entertainment fad. Its a full-on cult with its own music, rites, places of worship, dress and even shops, and its probably as inevitable a product of the techno age as the flappers were of the post-war Twenties. Part of a future-focused youth movement that's taken over from the murky Goths and metal heads to develop new values that are "constructivist and positivist". Rave promotes a philosophy of environmentalism and healthy lifestyle (the pollution masks), respect for cultural and gender diversity (androgynous clothing) and the peaceful resolution of conflict (peace symbols in the decor). Clearly what we have here are the flower children of the Nineties with a techno edge.

"Ravers are peaceful," a girl with a shorn head tells me. "That's why going to raves is much better than clubbing. You don't get drunks pawing you and throwing up in the corner. There's none of that aggro. And raves are always held in a different place, so it's always new and exciting. What else is there in Cape Town? Raves are a trip."

Which brings us to the ugly bit, the E-poppers. Everyone knows the raver's favourite substance of choice is the designer drug Ecstasy, because it's so suitable for the occasion. It enhances energy and stamina, enabling ravers to dance for 10 hours, while heightening sight and sound and promoting feelings of euphoria, tranquillity and oneness with the universe. I suppose that's why everyone seems so friendly. It's officially non-addictive, although that could depend on the personality of the user, and is used in Switzerland in psychotherapy.

But ecstatic though it may make ravers feel, there are dangers that all those involved with rave are well aware of. Bell explains that Ecstasy's components MDMA (methylendioxymethamphetamine) increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, which confounds the body's ability to control its temperature. Excessive water loss when dancing can result in dehydration, which is why ravers carry water bottles. Remember that kid in England who died when his brain literally boiled? Ecstacy also affects the body's ability to control blood coagulation, which means you might be bleeding to death internally while feeling wonderfully at peace with the world.

Not to mention what it might do to your mind if you happen to be emotionally unstable. And not forgetting the charming fact that, no matter what the kid peddling the stuff claims about it being the purest E you'll find this side of Amsterdam, it's well known that local versions can contain anything from Vim to strychnine.

This is not to suggest that my beady eye has managed to spot anyone openly selling the stuff. It's not allowed anyway, according to Vortex organiser Clyde Finlayson, whom I chance upon while he's taking a breather, and who would like me to understand that Vortex is emphatically anti-drugs, though admitting that everyone has freedom of choice.

I ask him about the San Francisco link-up and discover that it's Freddie Bell's baby. Bell tells me the trans-Atlantic cable goes all the way from Melkbosstrand via Amsterdam and Boston, courtesy of Telkom, AT&T and Picturetel, to a rave being staged in San Francisco by Metripolis (sic). An ex-Capetonian, David Dei, runs Metripolis and he initiated the whole thing as part of what seems like a politically-correct idea to get American donations of Internet modems into South African schools.

A link-up like this has apparently never been done before. It has to be the most riveting thing happening here tonight. I can't wait. Which is when I discover the first crossover took place at 11pm before I arrived, and the next will be at 5am. Does this mean I have to hang around till dawn?

"Naaa, it wasn't that great," an agreeable fellow in a Dayglo gym outfit tells me. "Okay, we could see them and they could see us. They were all waving on that big screen in the chill-out room. But the sound quality was so bad we couldn't make out what they were saying. All we could hear was them chanting 'world peace now'.

"It was cool," says the girl with him. "We chanted in unison, but" with a disapproving frown, "they were led by some sort of Indian guru in flowing robes and they all looked like hippies." Her own tight T-shit has a manic cartoon face growling from each boob. "That wasn't a guru, that was Yussan Yamamoto, special emissary to the Dalai Lama," says Freddie Bell. I decide I need a smart drink. I've' never had one, but maybe some extra vitamins and amino acids might speed up my wilting cognitive functions.

The smart drink bar is swamped with kids, far more than there are buying beer which is on offer for R4 a can. Alcohol is not a major part of rave. Its not only considered uncool, but you have to be sober to rave all night. Everyone's into smart drinks. It looks like ordinary fruit juice and how do I know it isn't? Or that it doesn't contain those chemicals they put in slimming mixtures to speed up metabolism, and will keep me buzzing until noon? The pamphlet put out by Frontier, the Wynberg manufacturers, warns that one should know what's in the smart drink before consumption (a portable test kit?). Frontier claim theirs are the only smart drinks that have passed tests by the South African Narcotics Bureau. Since they're "committed to keeping abreast of the cutting edge of nutritional science", which sounds painful, they also have a range of cocktails containing herbs with "very interesting nutritional properties".

Okay, so which of these mind-improving exotica will it be? Ignition, based on the currently hot gurana, stoneground seeds of an Amazonian vine used by Indian tribes as a primary food source on long hunting trips? Fusion, based on ground gingko biloba leaves and four different types of ginseng, all revered for their life-enhancing properties? L.S.I., based on the ground bark of the West African pausinystalia tree, traditionally taken in tea by West African tribes during sex ceremonies that last up to two weeks?

I opt for Gerriberri Juice, based on a synergistic synthesis of all of the above, and more. It costs R6, tastes like fruit juice, and my cognitive functions are not noticeably improved.

"Don't be silly," says Herman, a journalist friend who's also there. "You've got to have several before you begin to feel it."

I'm not sure I want to feel it. All I want to feel right now is my bed, and I haven't even spent time in the jungle room, a small dark hole where they play jungle music, full of drumming. But my karmic energies are depleted. On the way out I pass firebreathers performing in the centre of a rapt circle, and a cluster of kids playing with virtual reality....

But that's not the end of the story. A few days' later I meet two of the tycoons of teen who run Pharcyde, pronounced far side. They're Vortex's main competitors and they have a different approach to rave. Jonathan Portuesi, 21, is a UCT law school drop-out who started Pharcyde a year ago and was later joined by Mathew Quinton, 19, a former sociology student, and Torsten Kunert, a 23-year-old German. They're practically children, but they now stage the biggest raves in the country, each involving hundreds of thousands of rands.

IN a messy Bree Street office full of computers, surrounded by fired-up followers who talk rave with religious zeal, Portuesi and Quinton explain how their approach differs from Vortex. They speak like machine guns.

"Rave should be open to all. We're not trying to keep it elitist." says Portuesi, who coined the phrase "glitter babes" for schoolgirl ravers and was the force behind Bar Do-Me, a former Cape Town club. "It should be a carnival of amusement, lots of things going on., like Disneyland, a place where everyone wants to be. And that's what our raves are. Even the culturally bland are getting converted. For us it was a conscious decision to go big, to go commercial, with sponsors.

"The Vortex vibe is 'you're our friends. Come and join us.'," says Quinton. Vortex are soft and ethno. We're bitchy and hard. We just say straight out, let's party."

On August 25 Pharcyde is putting on what it calls a small event - tickets limited to 2000 - at the Dock Road Pumphouse, and on September 23 a mammoth rave at the Culomberg Railways Depot, for which they plan to fly in 400 German kinds on Virgin Airlines, to wave to their friends in Germany on a link-up video.

"We were the first ones to do it in Cape Town, foam raves, the lot. says Portuesi. "We have the biggest sound. Brian Quibell. Real cutting edge stuff. And the laser system that's rated the world's top. Mo Gibson from Laserworks. He's a Londoner who's got the best equipment on the market."

We watch their last rave on video, staged at the Civic Centre. They know it off by heart: "See that guy going crazy? He's going to fall off the stage" In the middle, Cosmopolitan phones for an interview. With unconcealed glee Portuesi excitedly punches Quinton: "D'you realise how much babe power all of this media stuff is?"

This is an unexpected reaction from Mr Supercool and it suddenly brings home the fact that underneath all the hype about the size of your sound equipment and the depth of your belief in peace and UFOs, this whole rave phenomenon, like the Paris fashion shows, is actually about getting laid.

What a relief. For a few eerie moments back there it looked like planet earth's quaint old primal urge was in danger of disappearing under a techno tidal wave.

---- Hilary Prendini Toffoli for Style Magazine, September 1995

[NOTE: Toffoli talks about David Dei, a net-alias I sometimes use, and "his company Metripolis" which does not exist. The correct information should read: David Robert Lewis of the "Zippy Cybersafari to Africa" based in Megatripolis SF. I have no connection to Megatripolis aside from the fact that I've helped out a few times, carried crates and been there -- DRL ]

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