Headphone Parties

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How diehards found a way to dodge a party-pooping state government

In a couple of hours, Janie O’Connor will be heading to Neptune Point to host yet another headphone party, and in the dancing crowd, she will look for signs. The number 444, which means angels are by your side. She wishes it were true.

The Silent Noise is in its sixth season of organising headphone parties and this is its first time without Janie’s beau, Justin Mason, who started it in this fenced-in corner of Palolem beach, where the hills dissolve into the sea. Neptune Point can host 1,000 people. At Alpha Bar in Palolem, a few minutes from Neptune Point, they have another version of the headphone party on Tuesdays. This is in a smaller space, where the crowd grooves to two channels of music. They come from all parts of the country, even abroad, to dance in these parties.

Silent Noise has organised headphone parties in Bangalore, Mumbai and other cities. But Goa has been the centre of this phenomenon. When they began, headphone parties in south Goa were a response to the state BJP government’s clampdown on regular music parties. The police had started cracking down on rave parties to control drugs in this beach city, which has always attracted all shades of hippies. Besides, there was noise pollution. Headphone parties were a way of letting party animals get their fix while staying on the right side of the law. Hundreds danced to music transmitted via headphones. Only the colour of the channel showed who was listening to what—house or electronic beats. Though everyone danced to their own music, in the sea of reds and greens and blues, you found your little group and matched steps, or shared drinks, or struck conversation.

Janie sat outside her villa in Rajabagh, south Goa, at the edge of the river, a bottle in hand. The cat was restless. The dogs ran around the garden. Time for the ritual before she headed to Neptune Point. She poured a few drops of the rose-colored wine into the river. And then poured herself the ‘sunset drink’. This was for Justin, who was fighting memory loss in a London hospital.

She had promised him in the hospital in August last year that she would continue to host Silent Noise parties in Goa. Janie had met Justin at Laughing Buddha, a club in Palolem where he was the DJ. The couple had moved here two years ago from Palolem. She has removed his pictures from where they hosted the barbecue on their roof because it made her sad to be here without him.

She is not the only one trying to keep the legacy alive. Like Dan Booth, the DJ, who would flash Justin’s photos on the huge screens in the middle of the headphone parties at Neptune Point on Saturdays, reminding everyone that he needed their prayers. They are 444 people. At 4:44 pm, they pray, and remember their friend who Martin, another friend, described as the “eternally beautiful boy”, who had an obsession with the number 444. He would see them everywhere. Ever since he met with the accident, his friends have been setting the alarm to reflect the digits, posting messages, and also seeing the numbers just like Justin. At a pool party, they asked everyone to jump in exactly at 4:44 pm, raise four fingers in the air, and shout out for Justin. Sometimes, after the headphone party is over, and Janie is in the auto, she reaches her rented home, and the clock strikes 4:44 am.

She shipped the purple shirt—the one he always wore on Christmas when they took a boat to the other side; she would wear her vintage red dress Justin loved—to their hometown where the doctors said he would need references to his past life, so he could travel back in time.

It has been six months. One afternoon, while he was riding, he braked to save a cow and was thrown off his bike. He called Janie to come fetch him, and when she did, he said he was okay except for a shooting pain in his legs. But then, he started forgetting things. He would move around confused. That is when it struck her that the damage was deeper. On the way to hospital in Panjim, in a shared ambulance, he said he was very tired and wanted to sleep. He went into coma for six weeks in a hospital in Goa.

To be with Justin in Goa, Janie had left her life in London, where she once managed events for Rolling Stones, and was one of the casting directors for Bollywood movies. She had also been a model. A photo from those years, with her flaming golden hair and red lips and hazel eyes, is a reminder of the life she once lived.

That evening we sat by Janie. The sun was setting, and the dogs were all over her, licking her feet. She said she would like to get 444 tattooed on her toes.

Headphone parties—there are two of them on this stretch of beach in south Goa—are among the few that go on till the morning. In the north, police crackdowns are routine. No music, no parties after 10 pm, says the new regime. There are the indoors trance music parties, like the one at Primrose restaurant in Vagator, but in a closed space, it is not the same. Those who can pull strings and pay bribes, still manage to throw parties but these are few.

On a Friday night at Curly’s restaurant, Anjuna, the police turned up. The music was turned off, the dancing guests came out, and sat on the beach, sullen-faced. This BJP government just doesn’t get it, they said. Last year, for the Christmas-New Year week, which is peak season for Goa, hotel occupancy dipped and the beaches weren’t full. You mostly saw honeymooning couples walking around the Baga area, getting nails painted and pedicures and foot massages.

At Alpha Bar in Palolem, behind the row of shacks serving chilled beer and fish fry, they talk about the parties that have changed the economics of the neighbourhood. Because north Goa is suffering with the crackdowns, people come here to the headphone parties and stay the night. Shacks are full on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Vendors keep their stalls open late into the night. Guru, a local autorickshaw driver, said the locals didn’t have any issues either as this party scene gave them business and didn’t disturb them.

“There is no noise at all. So, it is good for us,” he said.

People gone collectively mad. That’s how it looked. With headphones as standard paraphernalia, they were swaying, flailing their arms in the air, singing along with whatever was playing in their ears. There was silence around you and yet there was music everywhere. They looked like fireflies, with the red, green and blue lights the only cues to the music they were dancing to.

Fire dancer Yoko Swamy, who is from Switzerland, pierced the crowds, and got onto the stage with a mask and a blazing torch. He began to dance, fire wrapped around his body, moving like he were in a trance. Then came Jess Samuels, the trapeze artist, looking resplendent in her gold wings and gold costume, as she began her act. These two are now a number. Samuels stayed back in Goa, met Yoko on the beach, and taught him her art form. Now they do their routines together. The crowds cheer as the two work the ropes. They are add-ons to the party.

Suraj, the owner of Neptune Point, said these parties began as a way to survive government regulations. If there was no noise, they would be able to carry on. It has been six years but for some reason, the headphone parties have remained within the Palolem circle. Now, Janie is hosting a few in north Goa, but Suraj is still a believer in full music parties. Because then there is more unity, more fun. Here, it is to each his own. “In your head kind of deal,” he said.