Historic route US 93, an old and sturdy vein of the National Highway circulatory system, is etched across some 1,300 miles of old American sod from its southern terminus at the now faded boomtown of Wickenburg, AZ to its northern conclusion at Roosville, MT, a lonesome port of entry on the edge of the Canadian frontier. Speeding past joshua trees and the beryllium-bearing Aquarius Cliffs flanking US 93 deep in the desiccated bowels of the Poachie Range, my companion and I contemplated the approaching sea of anonymous tract housing developments that has come to define a growing part of the southwestern landscape. We were on our way to meet Liam and Geeno somewhere on the bleak outskirts of Clark county down in the blazing Las Vegas Valley. Liam, our late friend living in Albuquerque at the time, was the live-in caretaker of Geeno, a severely mentally handicapped man in his forties, and we had all planned to meet at one of those anonymous houses that stretch from horizon to horizon. The home belonged to a retired octogenarian music teacher named Dudley, a reclusive but charming man hailing from the South England hamlet of Hamworthy – his abode was dark and smelled of incense, and the walls were covered in old Tabriz carpets. A steaming pot of Lapsang Souchong tea was immediately offered to the cheerful guests as they arrived, and Dudley was expressing his opinions on classical music: “…the symmetry and formal perfection which others find so exquisite, incomparable or marvelous, I find goddamn infuriating…” This man’s function in the ceremony was akin to that of the shaman, a doorkeeper to a pure and sacred mansion-in-the-sky embodying a kind of hysterical mathematics. The ritual began with the 6 participants orally ingesting diisopropyltryptamine (DIPT), a psychoactive drug that causes auditory hallucinations. After a short meditation, the participants began making a strange and beguiling music – streams of sound designed to induce trance states among the musicians. Throughout that nightlong living room spectacle, a sense of comradery, curiosity, and euphoria prevailed over the uncanny din of glissandi and glossolalia.

The pursuit of religious ecstasy occurs in most, if not all, human cultures. An ecstatic, or trance, state is an altered mode of consciousness that is sought by an individual or group in order to experience visions of a transcendental nature, arriving at an intense level of emotion that strives to understand the ultimate mystery of being. Recent neuropsychological studies have demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens - part of the limbic system in the brain that is correlated with pleasure and sexual arousal – plays an important role in modulating the emotions actuated by music (Menon 2005). Ecstatic states can be quantitatively correlated with brain states, and it may be deduced that trances experienced by a wide variety of individuals have a common neurological and physiological basis. Personal interpretation of these experiences, however, is dictated by the language of culture. Words used to communicate this knowledge to other individuals take the form of symbols that are endemic, or peculiar to his/her culture. Mystical experiences are deeply personal, ineffable, and not easily expressed in language.
While this psychological condition of rapture can lead to a multiplicity of experiences and may be induced by a wide variety of techniques, trance states emerge from fundamental and common neurological processes, which are interpreted by the individual through the bounded lens of his/her culture. In this essay, I explore three cultures that invoke trance states through music-making: Pakistani qawwalis who attain ecstasy through god-fever, a Klezmer musician inspired by wine and extreme Zionist tendencies, and a small group of Americans who achieve trance states through the ingestion of DIPT, a synthesized chemical.


Qawwali is the devotional music of the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Scholars have defined Sufism as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God” (Zarruq 2008). Qawwali singing was first developed by Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer as an aid to devotion during the reign of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1234-1325) of Delhi; and his disciple Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) elevated the style by synthesizing Persian and Indian musical characteristics (Tewari 1979).
The qawwali style has roots in Indian classical music; its foundation is constructed from sargams (scales) and talas (meter). Today, qawwali music is most popular in parts of southern Pakistan and northern India. The purpose of qawwali music is to induce an ecstatic trance state called wajad in both the musicians and listeners – this is achieved through driving percussive rhythms, emotion-invoking devotional poetry, and the repetition of melodies and musical structures. Attaining the conscious level of wajad is no less than experiencing ultimate communion with Allah. This can be a highly emotional and intoxicating practice. Deep, raw-voiced singers shouting poetry in praise of the prophet Muhammad are accompanied by hypnotic rhythmic patterns pulsing from tablas, dholaks, and handclaps – this is all pervaded by the ornamented melodic tapestries woven by harmonium reeds. Songs are often around 15 minutes in duration, but they can stretch to two hours. The powerful and intoxicating effect of qawwali music has been viewed by orthodox Islam as a corrupting influence. The fundamentalist authority has some vested political interests in suppressing the unrestrained emotional outbursting essential to qawwali performances. In modern performances of qawwals, one may witness hordes of dancing ecstatic listeners throwing huge wads of cash (and sometimes car keys and jewelry) at the feet of the dramatically gesticulating singers.

TRYPTAMINE,N,N-DIISOPROPYL;INDOLE,3-[2-(DIISOPROPYLAMINO)ETHYL];N,N-DIISOPROPYLTRYPTAMINE;3-[2-(DIISOPROPYLAMINO)ETHYL]INDOLE Dudley sat on an oaken bench next to the two antique grand pianos that formed the nucleus of his living room. I was seated next to an august Akimel O’Odham man named Buddy Hayes who told me much about his plans to study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. The ceremony began when Dudley’s morose and wan manservant shambled in and placed a steeping pot of Chinese tea and a small silver box on a table next to the old Steinway. Dudley thoughtfully poured tea into 6 delicate teacups. He spooned out a small quantity of white powder from the silver box and stirred the granules into each steaming cup. The cups were distributed among the guests; all present drank the brew except for Liam and Geeno. I distinctly recall the taste of the tea: smoky with a bitter, chemical edge.
DIPT was first synthesized by Alexander Shulgin; its chemical structure, recipe, and reported psychoacoustic effects were documented in his 1997 book Tihkal. After orally ingesting 50 mg of the experimental chemical, Shulgin described the experience in this manner: "Everything was auditory, and I can only describe it with a ‘!’” (Shulgin 1997). The drug induces perceived nonlinear harmonic and pitch distortion – in other words, all sounds are transposed downward, and the intensity of this effect is proportional to the dosage. DIPT is an unscheduled and unregulated compound in the US (Erowid 2009).
Those present at the ceremony in Dudley's house belong to a sub-group of a larger international cultural movement of chemists and psychonauts - I call them diptologists. I was told that a diverse group of participants have been meeting at Dudley's home on a monthly basis for over a decade. None present ever likened their ritual to a church meeting, but any observer could easily compare the symbolism and ceremonial attitude of their meetings to a sacramentalist liturgical rite. I observed the diptologists performing a variety of musical styles: a capella songs made up entirely of slow-moving glissandi; songs consisting of sustained tones produced by voices, saxophones, and sine-wave generators; and sometimes raw, barbarous screeching.
I began to notice the aural effects of the DIPT about 30 minutes after drinking the tea (my companion, Bankhead, ran to the toilet to throw up – he had unwisely eaten too heartily from a cheap lobster buffet just outside of Vegas). The first thing I noticed was Dudley's voice, which had transformed itself from an elegant baritone to a grave, toad-like basso profundo. He was singing a chant that sounded Indian and microtonal - everybody was captivated by his solo performance. After this Introitus, participants around the room began to join in the singing, one by one, in serpentine counterpoint. I had never heard anything like it before. The group performed many of Dudley’s compositions - simple instructions were given to the musicians that yielded much complexity and euphoria. These songs evoked a unique style of trance music that elevated the participants to several epiphanies of rapture and meditation. This extraordinary and bizarre celebration lasted throughout the night.

field recording excerpt:

- ayahuasca brew concocted by the Urarinan shamans of Peruvian Amazonia,
- salvia divinorum (aka diviner’s sage) smoked and chewed by the
uncontrollably laughing Mazatec Indians,
- piper methysticum (aka Kava-Kava) consumed by spirit-world-seeking
South Pacific islanders for over 3,000 years (Lebot, 1992),
- alcohol, derived from fermented agave, administered anally in pursuit of
Mayan vision quest rituals inducing hallucinations of snakes, and
- tetrahydrocannabinol (aka cannabis) copiously smoked by members of the
Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church et al. (B.C. 2008)

A few years ago, I inherited a collection of obscure musical recordings passed down from my great-uncle, Shmuel Schenderovitch. Produced in 1963 during his final days in the Spanish Synagogue of Prague, the music consists of old Yiddish songs and Russian folk tales (accompanied by improvisation at the piano). After hearing the tapes (owned by my uncle Mendy) I was deeply moved and felt they should be preserved and shared, so I had them converted to digital tracks and created a website devoted to the man and music.
Shmuel was an enigmatic character, a black sheep in the family, a professional and private Klezmer musician who played the piano, violin, and sang. He was born in Chicago, but moved to Europe in the 1950’s – the tiny west Ukrainian village of Belz eventually became his adopted home. After interviewing many family members who knew Shmuel and spending countless hours listening to his music, a fascinating and rich story began to emerge. Here was a man who reached genuine states of ecstasy through his passionate Zionistic and religious ideals - a copious amount of Manischewitz wine often served to lubricate this path.
Zionism is a political movement, attributed to Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), that developed out of the desire to establish a homeland for diasporic Jews throughout the world (Bard 1999: 74). Also known as Palestine, Eretz Isreal was promised to the Jews by Yahweh, an ancient biblical deity. Originating in 16th century England and Holland, nationalism has served to unify and divide the peoples of the world across every continent (Smith 1998).
Shmuel’s songs are typically short, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. His melodic material stems from old Yiddish folk songs from Eastern Europe that were passed down through oral transmission until transcribed and published in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is clear from Shmuel’s recordings that he was deeply spiritual and highly emotional – one of his great desires was to join the ultra-orthodox Hasidic movement, but his beliefs were too extreme and seen as sacreligious by the religious authority. In his introduction to a song about dancing Rebbes, Az Der Rebe Tantst (published in 1932) (Mlotek 1988), Shmuel is heard shouting against dissonant chords on the piano:

Shmuel’s fervent devotion to the Zionist cause shines through clearly in his moving rendition of O, Liber, Mir Hobn Geshlosn (published in 1904):

And if you should fall dead, and your beloved eyes close, then I’ll wrap you in the red banner and fall with you in the bloody struggle; the bloody struggle between Israel and Palestine! You must fall!! Fall, Palestine!!!

This song (Oh, Beloved We Have Sworn) was originally used by the fighting Jewish proletariat as a rousing anthem during the Russian Revolution (Mlotek 1988). Shmuel adapted the words to further his own agenda. While performing, Shmuel would become frenzied over the religious and political ideas in his songs, and he would reach a state of overwhelming excitement hardly distinguishable from the fever pitch of the qawwalis. One of Shmuel’s last statements was found scrawled on a singed shred of notepaper:
The music I have left you is inspired when the ancient book lies open before me. I read it, I read it a thousand times! The Jew always has a word of comfort for his plight. To ease his pain and strengthen his heart he comforts himself by singing. Songs, simple songs. Songs are all I have – let the songs remain.

Some evolutionary biologists and neurotheologians argue that the mystical experience might have arisen as a byproduct of the evolutionary mechanisms of sexual pleasure and reward (Horgan 2003). Orgasm, a transitory state like trance, is a favorable evolutionary adaptation in that it increases the likelihood of gene propagation. Today, we know that the brain’s functions are not organized into discrete physical modules, but rather its mechanisms are distributed in a fluid and complex nonlinear system. Studies of synesthesia (Sacks 2007) demonstrate the prevalence of crossed and merged sensory apparati (Skrjabin and Messiaen are but two 20th century mystic composers who perceived sound in color and incorporated these associations into their music). The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine has been decidedly linked with the pleasure center of the brain, inducing motivation and sexual arousal. Researchers have observed increased dopamine levels while subjects copulate, listen to music, and ingest recreational drugs. It is unclear exactly how this neurotransmitter modulates emotion while listening to music, but objective links have been made using brain imaging data (Menon 2005). Intriguingly, intracranial stimulation studies of epileptics have demonstrated strong correlations between mystical experience and elevated activity in the left temporal lobe. The religious state of ecstasy is often not unlike an orgasmic experience, with its buildup toward a musty climax, a brief and precious moment of exhilirating euphoria, followed by a palliative descent back to reality.

The phenomenological hermeneutics of a coherent ethnoaesthetic is oft deciphered as a reification, hypostatisation, or fallacy of misplaced concreteness, when expressed in the context of methodological situationalism (Rice 2009: 58). Emic poststructural critical methods predominantly maintain a dialogic relationship, vis-á-vis the outsider-insider dichotomy, with its socio-historically neutral etic dialectical counterpart, notwithstanding the multiplicity of theoretical frameworks prevailing within the interpersonal dynamics of ethnomusicological and anthropological polemics (Nettl 1983: 249). Ofttimes, idiosyncratic characterizations of linguistically and semiotically performative ethnographies (Wong 2008: 78) through which a modus vivendi may be agreed upon and expressed, if you will, intralaryngologically, are homologous to a not unsignificant [sic] paradigm of epistemological and ontological disquisitions, per se (Adler 2009).


The paths to ecstasy are innumerable. Undoubtedly, humans will continue to discover new ways to exploit the brain’s remarkable ability to generate spiritual visions while constructing endless varieties of meaningful interpretation. Culture itself is an organism – it is constantly evolving, constantly in flux. An inherent problem exists when attempting to understand and compare the private inner experiences of a qawwali, a klezmer, a diptologist, or anybody but one’s self. Every individual may achieve states of ecstasy through his/her own personal and unique way. Nations and cultures aside, however, all humans belong to the self-aware and highly motivated eukaryotic species homo sapiens. Complex neural states that emerge from any kind of trance-inducing behavior are necessarily interpreted by an individual through cultural symbols (language, religious ritual, art, etc.). Used as tools to communicate the experience to others, these symbols depict but an approximation of these inner reflections.
At dawn, my companions and I left Dudley’s abode, that muted earth-toned tract house on Choice Hills Drive. I asked myself: through what cultural lens do I interpret this experience? 21st century technology has altered the cultural landscape so profoundly that it is difficult for members of my generation to imagine life without the internet. The world’s collective knowledge can now be picked and consumed in abundance like so much low-hanging fruit. Shaped by communications technology and cheap travel, our cultural lens potentially encompasses the vast diversity of our civilization.
We stopped at a red light somewhere on the Las Vegas strip at the crack of dawn; the DIPT effects still ran strong. One monstrous bosom flopped out of a white limousine window, and a drowsy harlot hoping to make an extra buck bellowed sleepily at Bankhead in ogrous bullfrog undertones: “Hey baby, wanna take a ride?” We hightailed it out of Vegas and continued to reflect on our experiences through the Hualapai badlands of US 93. Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages played on the stereo, the poignant lyrics made bizarre by the sensation of a 78-rpm record being played at 33. We drove southward, past radioactive Grasshopper Junction, past “Old 1225” languishing in the ghost town of Santa Claus, past a holocaust of gnarled chicken carcasses accumulating at the haggard hooves of Wikieuppian trailer parks. Hypnotic suggestions all.

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