It was a kind of mayhem. Hordes of twentysomethings stood on the desert’s sandy surface, laughing and dancing to the pounding music under the shadow of Masada.
Welcome to Minus 424, Israel’s second-annual electronic music rave at the Dead Sea, where the dancing happens at the lowest place on Earth.
One partygoer, Kosta, had traveled far to reach the rave at the base of Masada, but it wasn’t the deep significance of the site that drew him to Minus 424.
He stood on the raised platform of the VIP section, fist pumping to the electronic music blaring through the desert.
“I love the DJs,” he said. “It’s a good place, and I love the desert.”
Kosta and his friends were among the 13,000 people who came to Thursday night’s event, named for its location 424 meters below sea level. It was a party that began at 7 in the evening and lasted 12 hours, until 7 the following morning. Party-goers paid NIS 304 for the regular section and NIS 404 for the elevated VIP section — with separate bars, comfortable seating areas and a separate entrance — for the privilege of partying until dawn.
Minus 424 merges the modern beats of electronic music with the ancient gravitas of the Masada site, mixing modernity and history once a year. The struggles and woes of the ancient Israelis who died at Masada are, however, in the very distant past for the ravers, although many of them learned about Masada from textbooks or on a school trip to the site.
“I only paid attention to the location when we arrived and when we left,” said Daniel Waintrub, a 26-year-old from Chile, who is currently in Israel doing an internship. “During the party I was just looking at the stage,” he said.
For the party-goers, most of them in their twenties — minimum age was 18 — much of the experience was about dancing to the pulsing beat of music created by world-renowned DJs. This year’s roster included Dutch electronic producer Sander Van Doorn, Iranian-American duo Deep Dish, Dutch group Dutch Berlin and Dutch electronic duo W&W.
The idea, said Avi Yossef, the international promoter of the Zappa Group and one of the rave’s organizers, was to bring together young Israelis, as well as tourists, who are looking for something a little different.
Yossef believes that the fête creates an opportunity for Israelis to think about Masada in a different way.
“I think we managed to renew such a place with its story and give it a twist by [hosting] a festival here,” Yossef said.
It isn’t the only event that’s held annually at ancient site. There’s Israel Opera’s final opera of the season, held each June, an annual concert by the Israel Philharmonic, and sunrise performance by singer/songwriter David Broza.
A team of partners, including the Tamar Regional Council, the Tourism Ministry, several production companies and MTV Israel, worked together to pull off the Minus 424 event.
The Dead Sea Rave “puts Israel on the music tourism map,” said Yossef. He thinks it’s the only Middle Eastern equivalent to Tomorrowland, Belgium’s massive electronic festival.
“We can draw tourists,” said Yossef. “We can shift the public eye on this country.”
There are other events in Israel capitalizing on the same idea: large, young crowds enjoying music in a spacious, open area, far from the city centers.
The SunBeat music Festival, usually held in Northern Galilee, draws both international and local musicians playing rock, reggae, folk, Afrobeat, and everything in between. During the festival’s upcoming two-day event from November 21-22, this time being held in the Negev Desert, festival goers can enjoy everything from folk to electronic music, camping out with friends and family.
InDnegev — as in Indie Negev — is another weekend music festival in the desert, usually held in late October and hosting more than a hundred of the best indie artists and performers, and with an emphasis on personal creation.
Yes, Israelis like to party in the desert, the country’s final frontier, but the Dead Sea Rave offers a different kind of vibe.
“This is the best party in Israel all year,” said one raver, who preferred to remain anonymous. “The desert is quiet, nobody can tell you to shut down the music.”
Waintrub said that what made the festival special was the free-spirited nature of fellow rave-goers.
“Everyone does what they want,” he said, “and respects what other people are doing as well, and that creates a very creative and fun atmosphere while enjoying good music and dancing.”
For party-goers who needed an escape or got the munchies, there was an extensive food court, as well as a selection of bars, a merchandise section and a chill-out area, where they could go to escape the noise for a while.
This year’s rave had about 5,000 fewer attendees than the previous year, due in part to the conflict between Israel and Gaza over the summer.
Hani Levy, who handled public relations for the event, said planning for the rave began in the spring but was put on hold until the early August ceasefire.
“Once the ceasefire treaty held, we decided that the Israeli crowd must dance and unwind after this lost summer, so we put together the rave within six weeks,” she said.
Many of the international electronic dance music artists weren’t available by then, she added.
Still, said Yossef, “we didn’t want to postpone this event until next year.”
The ravers, for their part, didn’t disappoint. They partied all night, and when the sun rose, drank their coffees and chai teas and boarded the shuttles, heading to the nearby beaches, campsites and hostels for some much-needed shut-eye.