From the Dancehall Diaries: Notes on Passa Passa


A dreadlocked, weed vendor walks past me selling ‘High Grade’ in a cellophane plastic bag. I ask him, out of curiousity and, really, more amazement that he is clearly not hiding the product from view, (the bag is held up against his chest), how much it costs. He scrutinises me. Cynically at first. He then looks at the group I am with. He pauses. Looks again and then says: “so whe yuh waan know dat fah…?”. His voice trails off, an obvious hint of humour in it. We look at each other, knowingly, and then burst out laughing.

Everybody gets it. This is Passa-Passa. Take it or leave it, the rules do not really apply here. The laughter masks our wordless comment on his brazen disregard for the rule of law. After all, the police station is only a few chains away. He moves on; lazily, looking for more customers in the now crammed streetside venue. I am awed by his daring!

And that is not the only thing! The dancers are all out now in their wonderful array of ‘Dancheall fashion’. Their high energy and choreographed movements, including what I have now accepted as the ‘outrageous Daggerin’ dance, are all on display. The audience is mesmerised.

Stunt men from Germany and Jamaica are also riding by, giving us a taste of the melange that is Passa-Passa. They are promoting a stunt riding competition between Jamaica and German bikers, in a few day. Like the Red Bull truck – obviously one of Passa Passa’s benefactors, they and Red Stripe are helping to ensure the success of the event.

Something is definitely happening ‘Down Town’. The patrons are fired up and they know the ‘vibez’ will bubble till ah mawnin’! Oh, that is right, it is already dawn. The streaks of red flame across the grey coloured dome above us. Night is not yet ready to yield to the ways of daylight. Like the dancers below, she is far more interested in milking the curious energy of the throngs assembled beneath her on Spanish Town Road, the folds of fabric of her gown rapidly disappearing in the coming dawn.

Morning would be here soon and with it, his brother the Sun! But, still and even more curiously, the dancers remain steadfast in their vigil, dancing their troubles away, almost as if ode to the Night.

We had been here almost two and half hours now, having been the first to arrive at 2:30 a.m. Then, the residents all looked at us – one man and five women; three white, one Indian (from the Caribbean) and the other, well, she could almost pass for Jamaican. Her black skin fitted in perfectly with the black shiny pant suit she is wearing. No one can bother themselves with the ‘strangeness’ of her accent, or even that she is British! For now, she and the night are one and we are all caught up in the incredible energy of the Passa Passa moment.

Even the near unbearable heat of the shop across the road, in which we seek refuge, upon disembarking from the taxi cab, seems cool in this ‘out there’ universe. Women dressed in their everyday clothes lounge about expectantly behind the walls enclosing the street behind us. They, like the man smoking marijuana from the bong beside us are all regulars. All have come out to witness another chapter in the soon to be unfurled excitement.

Like everybody else in a ten mile radius, we can hear the ‘Selector’ warming up on the mic. He instructs the Red Bull truck and the two pretty girls who accompany it in their small car with the Red Bull sign plastered over it, where to park: “Not out in di way!” he says! “We ah regular inna dis! We know how Passa Passa go! Yuh cyaan park deh so!”

The drivers heed the warning, even while more patrons continue to trickle into the venue. It is now three twenty in the morning and we are seated across the road, near the wall with the women in their everyday clothes. They are partially hidden from view but we can still hear the excitement simering in their muted voices. Bottles align the wall in front of them. They have been building their own vibe all night.

Then, the men to their left see us! “Brederin! Gimme one ah dem nuh!” one of them says, gesturing to the five women. The petite Indian girl is already buying liquor and drinking in the flavours and excitement of Passa Passa. She is a foreigner. She does not understand him. I explain that, “he apparently wants one of your!” They all smile.

The dark skinned girl, enveloped by the folds of night, responds in mock amazement: “wants one of us?! Wow!” I smile, too! I know that this is but a taste of the energy to come. My friend from Australia, who even seems paler under the fluorescent street lamp, smiles broadly. She shows him her ring finger: “I have a ring!” she says in almost nasal Australian twang.

The Indian girl, hair flowing down her back, midriff exposed, is smoking and drinking now. She too points to her ring finger for the man to see her wedding band. As if, on cue and not wanting to be outdone, the man shouts back and holds up his finger for all of us to see: “Me ave a ring to!” he says in bawdy excitement.

The dark skinned girl, with the British accent, suddenly suggests that we should move to the front, nearer where the dancers have converged. She says she is not afraid, just not completely interested in going further with the discussion about ring fingers and gifts of adult, albeit foreign women. We comply with her wishes.

In the streets, more of our colleagues can be seen now. They are coming from ‘Fiction’, the newest and suppousedly very ‘Uptown’ club, on the other side of town – literally, it is more than twenty minutes away. They are all chilling out from the conference earlier in the day.

One girl, with reddish brown dreadlocks looks at me and says, more like shouts: “Your paper today was very good!…Now, I see what you were talking about!” I nodded back in acknowledgement, momentarily curious about what may have seen at Passa Passa that relates to what I talked about earlier. I push the question out of my mind, though transfixed by the sea of colourful costumes and the unbridled ebullience unfolding before me.

Even the Japanese men who were sitting beside us dressed in the most thugged out of urban wear, with dolled up Jamaican women beside them are nearer the dancers now. We all know that something big is about to happen!

The Indian girl, says to me: “People from all over are here!” There is another group of white patrons and one man who sounds like he is from somewhere in Africa, beside us! I nod in agreement. This time more certain I know what was said to me.

I am the unacknowledged tour guide. The only Jamaican academic in the crowd, at least from what we can tell! My paper earlier, briefly touched on issues like this. It focussed more on how political issues of subjectivity are in popular culture, specifically Dancehall. I am now the resident expert!

Passa Passa marked the completion of a long, hard day of much thinking and presentation of academic papers, arising out of the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) Conference in Kingston, from June 1-5, held at the Hilton Kingston Hotel. This was actual field work. Or, so we tell ourselves.

At any rate, it is a wonderful time to catch up with old friends and make new ones; hang out and take in the scene. Passa Passa lives up to expectation. Even the young boys dancing with the university professor and Dean of Graduate Affairs, who also taught me in undergrad, incidentally, is part of the moment. We all smile!

The Trinidadian television presenter with the long flowing red hair, to whom I was introduced by the Dean, is ‘irie’ now. She has had a few liquors and her partners are all looking on in rapt attention to the girls grabbing their crotch and acknowledging the Selector’s explicit remarks for their show of support; that is, if they are ‘good in bed’!

The TV presenter is shouting questions in my ears about, but only because it is so loud. She remarks also that she would like to do a project about the love of the Road! Whether Carnival in Trinidad, or Brazil, or even demonstrations in Italy, people all seem invested in the Road. She says we should work together and writes her email on a piece of paper. I place it in my pocket.

But, not nearly as carefully, unfortunately. We are pumped. This is all adrenaline now, though! Some of us have been up for close to twenty four hours, starting with early morning presentations the day before.

The TV Presenter says that, “next time I am here (Passa Passa), I want to see you out there dancing with them!” She points a red lacquered finger to the dancers, looking meaningfully at me. I smile and gently rebuff the invitation. After alll, I am an observer I remind myself.

I am sweating profusely now from practising the array of popular dance moves. However, only those which seem easy enough to pick up on spot. The others are a little more complex and require will more practise. I am not so sure I will be afforded that time.

I laugh raucously, at the invitation, a combination of disbelief at the suggestion, as well as a slight sense of nervousness from all the video cameras snaking their way through the crowds. I still work…outside of the academy. The feelings there are not always as liberal about events like these.

I do not wish to be seen on camera. So, I place my hand over my face. The camera man is not daunted. He shifts focus and turns his attention on the pretty TV Presenter, parts of her body are also exposed, though perhaps not as much as the girls grabbing their crotches beside us. They are swept up in the excitement and brashly performing for the video recording crew with panache and style.

Some of the other girls in the street, with their backs to the all purpose shop in which we bought our drinks earlier, increase the tempo of their gyrations. They must be seen too! Between that and the Selector’s continuing encouragement for even more explicit behaviou from themr; his acknowledgement of the ‘graduate students from UWI’ and the air conditioned coaster bus with market people ensconced inside; their produce piled high for all to see, Passa Passa has lived up to its billing. It is a show stopper!

The shop with the combination of weed, cold drinks and general purpose oils for achieving wealth, keeping a lover or bannishing unfriendly spirits; however, is a bonus. It is both haven and a study in contradictions – an ideal space for our anthropologising exploits.

We did not anticipate too, the unmatcehd cammaraderie of the resident. Though, I always knew it, I was still shocked. Spanish Town Road was an odd combination of urban malaise, youthful energy and rustic Jamaican charm. Looking at the energetic dancing, I was reminded of religious Jamaican folk rituals in which people ‘get inna spirit’ at night.

Even the women in their everyday clothes proved an invaluable part of the experience. They encouraged us to park behind the wall where they stood, the next time we are there. Everyone, including the old man and two women who were dancing in front the shop were in the moment, as if conspiring to show us another side of ‘ghetto life’ in Jamaica.

The mad man – we can tell from his attire that too many pieces of mismatched clothing just did not fit into the glamour and excitement of the other dancers, was off in his own world. But, his place was assured. He danced uninterrupted by the crews of young male dancers in their scarves, overall jackets, even windbreakers and multi-coloured shoes.

The cars were coming quicker now. Their insistent horns, indicating that Night had ultimately lost her grip in the battle for daylight. Her brother Morning was singnalling to his companion Sun that he was about to call off the party. From over the horizon, Sun shot out his first rays across the sky, every minute reminding that it was time to go.

We hugged everybody – at least those from the conference and went in search of our ride. The cab driver smiled upon seeing us: “Mi did ah wonder if onnu did ah go stay!” His smile betraying the seeming seriousness of his remarks.

“It did hype!” I say, emphasisng the last word, embodying the excitement! My voice hoarse from the constant shouting, the night air and the high voltage performances. I was tired. My feet leaden from the all night standing only just make it to my seat. The five women chimed in: “it was fun!”

“Wow! What an amazing party!”

“This was definitely better than Fiction!”

“A____________, we must do this again!” the Indian girl says to me, her eyes sparkling. She meant, when next she is in Jamaica.

I am happy. I have managed to entertain my friends/ colleagues, even while enjoying the experience myself. I will have to enter this as part of my field notes, I remind myself. The cab pulls away. Spanish Town Road and the energetic sounds of Passa Passa drifitng away with each second.

Still, the memory is so real it is hard to see how we would soon forget this. My friends’ excited chatter reliving every moment!

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8 thoughts on “From the Dancehall Diaries: Notes on Passa Passa

    1. I know, right! Passa Passa was off the chain! Seriously! There are more things happening in Kingston, though! Just that Passa Passa seems to be the mother of them all!…Call me when you get to Kingston! And, thanks for commenting! Much appreciated!
      Love!

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  1. At Passa Passa one is no longer a detached observer, one becomes a participant observer. Enjoyed the piece!! Nuff respect, Star!!

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    1. Thanks, Esteban! Could not agree with you more! I will definitely include this response in my write-up! The sense in which we are transformed into participants, albeit observers at events like this. Clearly you have been there before. Was it like that when you were there? How many times did you go? Just curious.

      Thanks, again!

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  2. I have been to Passa Passa once, and my experience was somewhat similar to yours. Enjoyed it both socially and educationally !Interestingly, I am looking forward to another visit, because the sociology of such an environment and cultural space is, indeed, immensely educational. And, for us, as Jamaicans, to understand and thoroughly grasp the fundamental, inherent and organic logic of a highly dichotomised and stratified society such as ours, it is imperative to comprehend the subtleties and nuances of Passa Passa and its various manifestations, implications and possible future influences, within the context of the larger Jamaican society. Nuff respect!!

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    1. Thanks, Esteban. Could not agree with you more. Your analysis is spot on, in terms of Passa Passa being a window into seeing how elements of Jamaican society works. What I would add, however, is that the issue of the change that seems to be going on “Down Town” suggests that some of the needed energy to stimulate change in Jamaica may well be housed in some of these experiences. If we could just find a positive way to harness and develop the apparent commitment to security and economics for example, and the sense of pride that people collectively took in ensuring that we were comfortable in the venue, to the wider society would be a plus in my view!

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  3. Raw Politics, I concur totally !! In many instances and circumstances, social and cultural transformation of communities and societies generally start(s) from below, as opposed to from the top, and undoubtedly, as you rightly contend, some of the very energies required to stimulate, arouse, excite and get Jamaica psyched up, is/are definitely housed in the transformation that/which is occuring “Down Town.” Regrettably, the economics and security issues are constants and must be addressed and resolved by both sides of the dichotomy, with respect to crime, investment in human capital,skills training, jobs, justice, mutual respect and understanding on both sides of the chasm, depoliticization of such communities in terms of degarrisonization, inter alia.This can be done, but what is severely lacking is political will and leadership.Nuff respect!!

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    1. Well, Esteban, that means that there is work to be done in terms of officialdom becoming involved in a positive way. In that regard, the points you make about investments in human capital, etc. Jamaica needs an overhaul in that regard. There is a real need for a different approach. Which, I sincerely, hope can happen and some time soon. We just hope that the national position will be open to the possibilities of seeing these potentials in many of these unexpected places and is prepared to work with those involved at Ground Zero, to make it happen.
      Thanks, again!
      And, nuff respect to you, as well!
      Bless!

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