The Dance That Could Save Kingston

In the poor neighborhoods of Jamaica’s largest city, far from the typical tourist traps, economic opportunities are few. Can Passa Passa, a wild, ribald, sweaty weekly dance party of up to 20,000 change that?

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The club owner’s name is Popcorn the Legend, and he gestures toward the rugged parking lot in front of the Garden of Eden lounge. “Park here,” he says. “Support the bar, then go to Passa Passa.”  

It’s almost 3:30 on a Thursday morning, and the narrow stretch of Spanish Town Road in the hinterland of West Kingston is clogged with thousands of revelers: Locals, Europeans and Americans jostle with Japanese dancehall-queen wannabes. Raw, salacious and unadulterated, Passa Passa is not your parents’ cookie-cutter vacation spot. The name is patois for “mix-up,” and it is a phenomenally popular dancehall street party that occurs Wednesday nights into Thursday mornings in Tivoli Gardens, one of the island’s most-feared “garrison” communities. 

The big draw is the scantily-clad video girls with painted bodies gyrating and mouthing the lyrics to every song. Male dancers with names like Cowboy, Crazy Hype and Sri-Lanka dance in clusters, their movements synchronized. Vendors hawk peanuts, candy, codfish fritters, corn soup, snacks and jerk chicken. The affable, bearded “weedman,” a fixture at every Passa session, moves blithely through the crowd offering dried marijuana stalks that sell themselves. Maestro, the voice of Passa Passa, steps behind the DJ booth and whips the crowd into hair-pulling frenzy as he spins the latest club tracks—Nuh Linger, MySpace, Tek Weh Yuhself—chanting ribald lyrics about cunnilingus, loose women and homosexuality.  

Come 7:30 a.m., when the party begins to wind down, bus drivers taking locals to work will smile tolerantly while maneuvering through the throng.  

Passa Passa was created in 2003 by members of Swatch International sound system. Dylan Powe, chief executive officer for the event, explains, “It’s as authentic as dancehall culture comes, and we’re not interested in watering it down to make it more palatable.” It is ground zero for the culture: music, artists, dance, fashion, slang, as is evident by the frequent presence of luminaries such as Beenie Man, Sean Paul and Shaggy. But its success and longevity defies convention and history. More than entertainment, it presents a viable economic opportunity for Jamaicans.  

But to understand why Passa might be a positive force, it’s necessary to know the culture of the communities known as garrisons. These communities—Tivoli, Trench Town, Concrete Jungle, Fletcher’s Land and others—are governed by gangs and “dons” who control their entrances and exits and act as a liaison between the community and political parties. Wars are fought to protect political boundaries and territories, and protection of political parties insulates the communities from law enforcement. Through Passa Passa, music and enterprise have become a catalyst for entrepreneurship, peace and community building. It’s also largely free from violence—the troublemakers avoid trouble lest they face a censure and backlash from the neighborhood.  

Nearly 20,000 revelers flock to this ordinarily scorned community on a good night, bringing their spending money with them. As Popcorn told me, “an unemployed person can ‘trust’ [buy on credit] chicken, fish, cigarettes or a box of beer from a wholesaler and start a business. Sell, pay the debt and keep it going. Everybody profits.”  

New artists come in the hopes of getting their music played, established ones come to test new sounds and discover the next big thing. Dancers—some of them once violent gang members—work to attract the attention from big-name entertainers, producers and promoters. These are opportunities to change their circumstances in ways neither a gun nor a politician can. Powe explains, “The community’s close proximity to the harbor, the market and as a main transportation hub for the island makes it a center for commerce. The fact that people here have always had their own shops, businesses and hustle is a natural evolution of what’s always been,” Powe says.  

Ironically, Tivoli is represented in the Jamaican Parliament by current Prime Minister Bruce Golding.  He neither condones nor condemns Passa, an event which arguably provides more economic opportunities for his constituents than his government can provide. Much of Passa’s staff are residents of the garrisons. If the roads flood after a rainstorm, the vendors lend their handcarts and drums to bail water and clean the streets, so the event can still take place.  

Passa’s popularity and power as a social and cultural trendsetter has increased over the years. Thanks to cell phones, YouTube and MySpace, what goes on at Passa parties can immediately influence what happens in far-flung locales from Brooklyn to Tokyo to London. Corporate sponsors have also taken notice as evidenced from the strong presence of brands such as Jamaica’s Desnoes & Geddes, Digicel and Red Bull. Even so, the bulk of Passa’s business is derived from worldwide sale of CDs and DVDs, Passa parties packaged with DJ, artists, dancers and the sound system as well as the recently launched T-shirt line.