Last night was Passa Passa’s 6th birthday. In light of this auspicious occasion, I thought I’d post a piece I wrote about the now legendary dance. Pictures by the great Roy Sweetland. Favourite line: “This music was born outside.”
Every week, on Wednesday night, Spanish Town Road in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, Jamaica, transforms into Passa Passa. Five thousand people gather to dance and listen to music played by the soundsystem Swatch International—for free, outdoors and as loud as possible. Passa Passa is not just a local street party. Since its inception in 2003, it has grown to attract corporate sponsors in Jamaica, and also to attract the world. And the world has attracted Passa Passa—this coming weekend, Nico Skill and Maestro, two of Swatch’s top selectors (the Jamaican term for DJs), are coming to Montreal to bring a taste of what they do to our winter wonderland.
To get a sense of why this weekly dance is not your average party, it’s important to take a look at exactly where it happens—yes, Jamaica in general is important to reggae, but West Kingston, an area notorious for violence, is specifically important to dancehall. Though many of dancehall’s biggest stars hail from neighbourhoods in West Kingston, it’s still known as a dangerous place.
As Nicholas “Nico Skill” Smith explains, “Before Passa Passa, there was crazy war going on in Kingston, in the Denham Town, Tivoli area and all these places. Every minute, we had something flare up. But since Passa Passa came about, we’ve been playing and it’s been drawing such a huge crowd, the violence in the community is no more. Communities have been fighting, but not in Tivoli area.”
Carl “Maestro” Shelley agrees. “Jamaica was on the verge of a dancehall breakdown. Fun and unity had deteriorated. Different people from different areas, different communities that shared different political views, did not cooperate. We introduced Passa Passa and it became a way of unifying the garrisons, the communities that make up Jamaica’s inner city.”
Excite and unite
It was convenient for Swatch International, who, at the inception of Passa Passa, had been around for over a decade. “Swatch wasn’t born big,” laughs Nico. “It started with one speaker box and one amplifier. And we would get bookings within our communities and you have to know that you’ve got to play well to please those people!”
In addition to having the reputation, the sound, run by O’Neil Miles, proprietor of Miles Enterprise at 47 Spanish Town Road, had a venue—the street in front of the business.
Maestro provided the name. “Generally, in Jamaica,” he says, “the words ‘passa passa’ mean excitement, mix up—anything can be termed as ‘passa passa.’ So we decided we would create a little passa passa where people would enjoy themselves and try to work out their views, and even if they come from different communities, they can party together.
“This is a place known as an area where no one wanted to go—it’s been like rags to riches, but rich in the sense of positivity. People admire that—no one used to want to go there and all of a sudden, everyone wants to go there because it is safe. Nothing can happen. Your car won’t get broken into, nobody is going to rob you. Stuff like that doesn’t happen. It is generally safe overall because this is an area where you have not only Passa Passa but other big events. Passa Passa is the one that opened the gate for all these things to be positively accepted. Everyone wants to party here.”
RESPECTED SELECTORS: Nico Skill and Maestro
Here come the clones
When Maestro says everyone, he means it. Passa Passa doesn’t just draw folks from different communities in Kingston. Any weekly round-up of Passa Passa’s crowd might also include visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, Ireland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, England and Japan.
Swatch has also taken their night on the road. “International audiences appreciate the music, just like when we are downtown,” says Maestro. “They watch the tapes, they go on the Internet to all of these Web sites and they download all these DVDs. When I go to Japan, all the parties that we talk about in Jamaica, they have them in Japan. Every night. They have a Passa Passa and a Maestro down there. When I see this, I think, they are literally cloning us! It’s amazing.”
But what makes Passa Passa what it is are the people who make it their own every week. “Passa Passa is kept in the ghetto and ghetto people love excitement,” Nico explains. “These people are fun people. They love to dance and they do crazy stuff. They come up with all these ideas. It’s just mad. They come together as one and listen to music to the fullest. We play the music and if someone comes and says to us that they have a hot song, we’ll play it to see if it has a vibe—if it does, it could turn out to be number one next month!”
It’s not just hit tunes that get their break at Passa Passa. It’s dance styles too. “If I were to explain everything that Passa Passa has brought to the forefront,” laughs Maestro, “it would take us days! Passa Passa is the one that invented many of the styles in the dancehall. Passa Passa is where we see Thunderclap, Dutty Wine, all of these dances. That’s where they started. Downtown.”
Nico concurs. “Before, it was the DJs and the sounds making all the money, but right now, where dancing is concerned, it opened a new door for a lot of young youth who never dreamed they could have a life like this. And it’s ghetto youth, because all ghetto youth can try to dance and make a style. It happens. They dance and dance and go to more parties and do the same dances. We, the selectors, endorse it and it just gets big.”
In defence of daggering
Still, some commentators think that some of the sexually inspired dancing, called “daggering,” is a bit much. Maestro thinks that these people should change their focus. “They used to say that dancehall creates too much violence. It was a problem, so we said, ‘Alright. No more gun talk.’ Daggering for the girls—why is this still a problem? They need to make up their minds about what they really want in the dancehall. As a selector, I can’t see daggering starting trouble. There are so many things that can come out of this thing called dancehall. They need to appreciate it. A whole heap of people eat food, youths go to school, all just because of daggering! You know how many youths used to kill people and then stop kill people just to become a dancer and bust a new style, get lucky, get a visa and go in foreign countries, travelling as a dancer?”
Even with the recent crackdown on night noise in Jamaica, Passa Passa keeps going. “Passa Passa’s roots are in the ghetto,” says Nico. “Uptown, you cannot play your sound outdoors and have an outdoor party. The Noise Abatement Act means that your neighbour can’t hear your music. If he does, he’ll call the cops and the cops’ll turn it down.
“In the ghetto, it is totally the opposite. You just play until daylight,” he laughs. “You have a sound, outdoor music, big amplifiers, three huge columns of boxes and we just blast it so that whosoever come to that party, Passa Passa, it’s not like the club.”
But, as Maestro explains, “Passa Passa is really the only street dance that is left on a high level right now because the law is cracking down on the night noise. It is really hurting dancehall music. People come to hear the music outside. To see the men cooking jerk chicken. To see the man walking around with a big bunch a’ herb. They come to see the big tower of boxes outside. And the cane man. The corn man with his soup. This music was born outside.”
P.S. If you want more Maestro, check his single out: “Up Inna Di Tings”.