LIVE REVIEW: HARD Day of the Dead Festival Mixes EDM and Spirituality

On Saturday, October 26, I attended a San Pedro ceremony. With a group of fellow journeyers, I drank the extract of a psychedelic cactus sourced from Peru, danced around a circle to live music, shook rattles, played drums, lay down to focus on my own insights and visions, and had drug-induced heart-to-hearts with other participants.

The following Saturday, November 2, I went to the HARD Day of the Dead festival in downtown LA. I microdosed some iboga and met others on their own substances of choice, whether that was weed, alcohol, MDMA, or something else. We danced together, sang along to the music, went on our own inner journeys as we swayed to the electronic beats, and talked to one another by the food stands. It struck me how similar this experience was to the one I’d had a week prior.

EDM festivals are modern-day shamanic ceremonies: People use music, dance, and often substances to connect with one another and achieve a higher state of consciousness. With the occasion of the Day of the Dead, which is already full of spiritual rituals meant to connect with ancestors, this association was extra prominent at the HARD Day of the Dead festival.

The afternoon and evening included many diverse manifestations of the EDM genre. Early in the day, Vietnamese-American DJ Softest Hard bound the festival-goers together by inspiring them to sing along to remixes of well-known tunes from Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” featuring Drake to t.A.T.u.’s “All the Things She Said.” Then, new-beat producer 1788-L delivered a delightful combination of trappy rhythms and unexpected interludes of classical piano and other instrumentals.

Later on, electropop artist Elohim took the stage for the trippiest set of the evening, with technicolor images of pills and the definition of “hallucination” on the screen behind her. It was during her act that the connection between EDM and psychonautic exploration was made clearest. In “Braindead,” she sings about drugs and spirituality: “All I know is I know what I don’t know / And what I don’t know could fill up a whole bible.” She also played an unexpected and musically fascinating cover of Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” her breathy voice gently drawing out lyrics punchingly shouted in the original.

Another highlight of the evening was Blacklizt, Zhu’s deep house/techno alter ego, who blasted haunting sounds alongside a creepy collection of mannequins in front of a screen showcasing eerie images like scissors. His set reached its climax when he played “Faded (Baby I’m Wasted),” prompting the audience to belt out the lyrics, “Baby I’m wasted / All I wanna do is drive home to you / Baby I’m faded / All I wanna do is take you downtown.”

The headliner was Dog Blood, a collaboration between Skrillex and Boys Noize, ending the night on a high note with fast-paced electro-house beats and R&B influenced songs like “Midnight Hour.”

Despite the performances’ mystical undertones, it would be a stretch to say the festival honored the holiday’s spiritual traditions. Its representation of the Day of the Dead was fairly surface-level and came off a bit culturally appropriative given the poor representation of Latinx artists in the lineup. The event’s nods to the holiday and Mexican culture were essentially the symbols white America is most familiar with: a giant skull, a mariachi band, a stage flanked by skeletons.

What it did represent well was the spiritual culture of EDM: one full of trance-inducing songs, drug-facilitated connections, and crowds that move like one giant being. Whether or not it accurately celebrated the Day of the Dead, it was — like all music festivals — a celebration of life.

HIGH NOTES: The Sound of Iboga

“This life is just a dream. It’ll be over in the blink of an eye. Remember who you are. Remember what you are.”

Omkara’s “Remember” filled the dimly lit, sand-colored living room of my Venice Beach apartment. I was on the cusp of a discovery, or perhaps a rediscovery. The following day, I’d hop on an Amtrak to San Diego, cross the southern border to the beach of Rosarito, Mexico, and ingest the roots of the African Tabernanthe iboga plant.

I recalled advice I’d been given on an ayahuasca retreat a year prior: “Remember to remember who you are.” Why was this coming back now? Who was I that I needed to remember? What part of myself had been lost?

“I just listened to this song, and wow, it hit me,” I texted Dimitri Mugianis, who was about to administer the psychedelic, along with a link to the video. “This life is one of many, and it will really feel like a blink of an eye. And I incarnated here because I wanted all of this… and I chose a big mission for this life. I am here to do something so big, it gives me chills… I’m crying now. It’s like I’m remembering what I am, how big I am.”

Was I already under the influence? Although I hadn’t yet arrived at the apartment Dimitri rented for the occasion, I may have been feeling the plant’s effects, he said. “The ceremony’s already started.”

My motivation for taking iboga, which has been used for everything from treating drug addiction to ushering in spiritual experiences, was multifold. I was trying to recover from chronic Lyme disease, and I wanted to work through any trauma that had led me to contract it.

Before the ceremony, I emailed Dimitri a list of songs I’d like him to play. “Remember” came on in the beginning, just as I begun to feel stiff and woozy and like the room was spinning. I used the last of my functioning brain to sing along, then I slipped down into what seemed like the underworld.

“Show me my trauma,” I told Father Iboga, as they call the plant spirit. What I saw instead was the collective trauma of humanity. I saw the holocaust, I saw slavery, I saw animal abuse again and again. I saw so many cannibals. I asked if there was a word for what I was seeing. “Darkness,” Iboga told me. “Your trauma is a fear of the dark, which is a fear of death.”

I saw all the times I felt dead. I saw my head over a skeleton with grey hair. I saw flashes of myself on heart monitors. I saw myself as an old witch. I saw old ladies trapped in basements, slowly withering away. I saw bones breaking and organs falling out and heard my cousin saying, “Step on a crack and break your mom’s back.” Things falling apart, the death, the horror. The sense of being meat.

Death is not what happens when we die, I realized. It’s when we live as if we’re already dead. It’s when we choose dark. I saw the times I’d chosen dark.

“Show me my trauma,” I repeated. I saw montages of adults yelling at me as a child. I saw an afterschool program with a very mean teacher, a chalkboard, a dark room, a door slamming. “What happened there?” I asked. “That’s where you saw the darkness.” I did not know what that meant. Soon after, the sun came up. “Time to move into the light.”

I saw a cloud with a bunch of little squiggles. These squiggles were our souls. They jumped into Earth like a swimming pool, assuming bodies to communicate with loved ones. And then I met my soul! It was a pure, good soul. It was a part of the cloud where all the souls joined, and it was here to spread light! I cried and cried as I realized who I was: a bringer of the light! I spent the day weeping on the couch and spotted fairies, awestruck, in the night. 

Throughout the next five days, I heard Omkara’s voice from the corner of the living room: “Remember who you are.” Why was this song playing on repeat? I wondered. Then I remembered Dimitri warning me, “You might hear people saying things they’re not really saying.” That would also explain why I heard “Oh my god Becky, look at her butt” during the ceremony.

I thought back to what I told him the morning after: “I’ve been coaxed into the darkness, but I’m here to spread light.” Who was I? I was part of the hive mind, and the hive mind was made of light.

“This life is just a dream, a dream made of love.” I came from a cloud of love. That was who I was.

On the last day of the retreat, Dimitri and I went on a walk. “Is it just me or is the wind singing, ‘Remember who you are’?” I asked him. I knew the answer; the wind couldn’t talk. But my ears were still telling me otherwise.

“Just remember what you learned about the light and the dark,” he said. “The key to maintaining your health will be giving back.”

Over the following week, I heard the song emanating from the oddest places: airplane engines, microwave ovens, entirely dissimilar songs on the radio. Iboga had made the message clear: my job is to spread light. The challenge now is just to remember who I am.