Since 2003, Jamaica’s biggest weekly street dance, Passa Passa, has lured a surge of people every Wednesday night to Spanish Town Road, the heart of the Tivoli Gardens community in downtown Kingston. Last week, Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, declared a “state of emergency” as military forces entered Tivoli on the hunt for Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who is wanted for gun and drug trafficking charges in the United States. The operation led to civil unrest throughout the West Kingston area—Coke’s stomping grounds—and resulted in the reported deaths of over 70 civilians. Dylan Powe, Passa Passa’s branding executive, agreed to talk with us about the famous street party as he prepared dinner for his family at home in Kingston. A graduate of Columbia University in both economics and philosophy, Jamaican-born Powe spent a stretch of time in New York, working A&R for Atlantic Records and DJing for the now-defunct WLIB before returning to Kingston in 2005 to work with the family sound system. He gave us his thoughts on the fate of Jamaica’s biggest party in the midst of social turmoil.
How did Passa Passa start?
The real person who started Passa Passa was my cousin O’Neil Miles, the operator of our family sound system, Swatch International. What happened was, after the first Reneto Adams raid in 2001*, Tivoli people stopped going out. There was war and political friction going on and West Kingston became a more insular community. A lot of people weren’t coming there to party and people weren’t leaving to go party. My family has a business down there from the early 1950s, a drug store. Wednesdays downtown closes half day and the roads become less busy. So O’Neil used to set up the sound system in front of the store to test it for dates over the weekend, and he would take a couple of hours or so playing new records. When he’d play, people from the immediate area who wouldn’t normally come out of their homes would come out. Maestro, who is one of the major selectors, actually coined the name Passa Passa because what he saw was people from different areas in West Kingston partying together by default since there was nothing else to go out to. So, Passa Passa really means, “mix up.”
When did you get involved?
Always was, because it was a family thing. O’Neil was the person that was actually there, and I was in New York getting the equipment and dates. Passa started off with a bang relatively. Within a year and a half it was the biggest event for dancehall, so when I came down my whole focus was really branding, putting it out there as the premiere hardcore dancehall event.
Do you think branding is what made it specifically better then other parties?
No. Swatch is the best sound system in Jamaica. And also, West Kingston is a very, very special community. The people are very welcoming. For the most part, when events are kept in Jamaica it’s a problem of doing something in someone else’s area, but because we’d been a part of that community for such an ongoing period of time, it was like they’d lent us their house.
What did Passa Passa do for the community socially?
It helped to decriminalize Tivoli Gardens. Prior to Passa, when people would mention Tivoli Gardens it was like you were talking about hell. There were many “uptown” people, that when you said “downtown,” they would cringe. When people realized that others were going downtown to party in this “dreadful place” and no one “ate them alive,” it changed what they thought of the area. It grew internationally too. People in Jamaica were reading international publications about Passa and were like, “This is going on downtown and I don’t know about it?” So they in turn went down there to experience it. Kinda like Bob Marley, who was huge abroad first, and then people realized this little Rasta man is the biggest thing ever. That’s what happened with us to an extent.
There was never an issue of violence?
Never. In the seven years that Passa has been around, there’s never been one gunshot fired, there’s never been one knife drawn, there’s never been any reported incident of theft that hasn’t been resolved. Maybe a cell phone lost or someone picked a pocket, but never violence.
All these people from different garrisons and uptown communities together and no violence?
It has a lot to do with the community itself and the perception that the community doesn’t tolerate misbehavor. Tivoli Gardens has always been self-governed. When I say self-governed I mean that because of the proximity to the market, because of the proximity to the main bus routes in and out of the corporate area, Tivoli people are relatively self-sufficient. You don’t have to go to a grocery store because you have Coronation Market. It’s not like other ghetto areas where you’re forced to leave to get the things you want. When you go to Tivoli, you kind of abide by the rules that exist. It’s been insular for so long, it does what it does. And Tivoli embraced all these people for Passa, so you were on your best behavior because you didn’t want to ruin a good thing.
How did it change dancehall?
Some of the best selectors to come out of Jamaica have come through Passa—two of the most immediate being Little Richie and Maestro. As far as raw energy, raw ghetto sound selectors, them two guys are probably some of the best to come out in the last decade. Some say, “Bwoy dem touch the street,” but it was bigger then that, them was the streets. They weren’t telling people what’s hot. They were defining what’s hot. When I was still away, a riddim with Maestro came out with what at the time I thought was a bullshit saying, “Lighting, thunder, raindrop! Thunderclap! Thunderclap!” and within eight months Usher and Lil Jon were doing “Thunderclap” in a video. The people in our little community were impacting on a global culture. Also, everybody could come and Passa was this free, creative place. PNP, JLP, uptown, foreigners, the head of Seagram’s from France, from the gutter most to the butter most, they all came. That type of melting pot brought out an energy that wasn’t seen anywhere else and still hasn’t been seen anywhere else. To some extent Passa was a Jamaican carnival and people would just free up for this period of time and then go back to the norm.
What do you think will happen now to Passa Passa?
Hard to tell. Truth be told, because Passa is so integrated in the community, what happened in the community is what will happen to Passa. The bigger issue right now is that a lot of people, innocent as well as a few not so innocent, are dead, a lot of people are unaccounted for, and a lot of people are arrested. Our major issue right now as people who are a part of that community, is to build back the rest of the community. So I can’t put a long-term prognosis on what will happen to West Kingston and Passa right now. Passa could not happen without West Kingston, so wherever goes West Kingston, goes Passa. There’s nothing that separates. If you destroy West Kingston, you destroy Passa. If you kill people off in West Kingston, you kill off what makes Passa what it is. You know, there is so much irony in all of this. In the first place, PM Bruce Golding represented the constituency in which Tivoli Gardens is located, so Passa was where he celebrated his victory three years ago. A lot of ironies exist in all of this, and are happening as we speak.
Do you think it could be an end of an era?
Very much so. I think it’s definitely gonna change, whether it changes for the good or the bad, short or long term, is still being determined. But you don’t have a hundred or odd ghosts running around and things stay the same. You don’t have a hundred dead people in a community, and the party goes on.
*In 2001, Jamaican Police Senior Superintendent Reneto Adams infiltrated Tivoli Gardens to extinguish gang war between Tivoli and a neighboring garrison, leading to the controversial deaths of 27 people. He later released a song called “To Protect & Serve” to promote the ideals and practices behind his particular approach policing the community.