another kingston sunrise
watching the sun rise over kingston has become almost routine these days. it is an amazing time to see the city. it is amazing, too, how many see it at this time. at 5am, the street in front of quad was bustling with activity as a substantial number of late club-goers emptied out into new kingston. taximen shouted at crackheads who shouted at other crackheads who shouted at us. one older guy, who seemed to be offering the vague assistance that streetpeople often offer you, swore to me that he was "lubba lubba"--the dancer for whom a dance of the same name was crowned. who knows. a half-hour later, the city had grown much more quiet, peaceful--though stirrings of the new day had already begun. as marvin and i drove through the gradually brightening streets, we passed several corners where hard-working higglers had already put their fruits and wares on display. we also passed marvin's mother on the road--on her way to the market at papine, where presumably the early bird catches the freshest fruit. i was struck by how early some were starting the day and how late we had extended the previous one. jamaica's hours still perplex me. i don't know how so many seem able to simultaneously rise early and stay up late. fortunately for me, red bull has finally become a staple at jamaican clubs, dancehalls, and roadside stalls.
quad was fun, if generally unremarkable. been there, done that, i suppose. it wasn't a specialized night, as other nights are, so the music ranged over mainstream club fare: hip-hop, dancehall, and techno. when we walked in--at around 1:30, which was about the time most people seemed to be showing up--fat joe's jamaicafied "lean back" was rumbling through the system and people were doing the rockaway. the contemp hip-hop continued for maybe a half-hour before the DJ/selector segued into a dancehall set which had people dancing and shouting and throwing imaginary guns in the air. (it's noteworthy that the DJs/selectors at quad, unlike at many other clubs and dancehalls in jamaica, stay out of sight and rarely talk over the music.) after a mash-up of vybz kartel's "tek buddy gal" and daft punk's "one more time" (which worked surprisingly well), the DJ/selector transitioned to a trance set, which seemed to put a significant damper in the dancing, though some folks seemed to enjoy it and most did their best to work with it. eventually, the selections returned to and settled on the dancehall/hip-hop matrix (including a repeat spin of "lean back" for the late crowd), and it struck me once again that hip-hop and reggae increasingly, if for some time, occupy the same spaces. almost any dance or club that i go to in kingston plays them side by side. similarly, back in boston, one would be hardpressed to hear a night of hip-hop that did not include some reggae records. i'm still pondering the significance of sharing similar soundscapes across vast distances. if such sounds contribute to one's sense of place in a profound and feelingful manner, as i believe they do, how does this sense differ in different places, despite shared musical referents. in other words, what do hip-hop and reggae mean to kingstonians or bostonians? how do the sounds/images/themes/practices of reggae and hip-hop inform as they reflect local processes of identification? what story does the music tell about the people, and how does this compare to the story the people tell about the music (and therefore themselves)?
the other late night this week was wednesday night--thursday morning, technically--when i finally got a chance to check out TG's "passa passa." although a somewhat passe term for drama or trouble--the kids these days prefer "mix up"--"passa passa" is far from a passe event. it remains a vibrant party. and one that starts and ends late. (i've read some acounts of people going home at 8am after dancing through two hours of broad daylight.) we left a bit on the early side--it wasn't quite 5am--though we got there at a reasonable time: quarter to 2. ironically, ben and i had to assert our desire to go straight to passa passa. our companions, dami d, raw-raw, and a video-producer named allen (who just put together an impressive clip for richie spice) first wanted to stop by "weddy wednesdays" at stone love. (btw, elepant man's refrain of "weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy" has become truly ubiquitous. since he says it in all of his recent recordings, it is nearly impossible to avoid. i hear it around, and say it myself, as often as bounty killa's equally popular, "cross...angry...miser-rebel.") ben and i were feeling like we wanted to take in as much passa passa as we could, so, since we were paying for the cab and all, we went straight to tivoli gardens.
straight to TG indeed. after slipping new kingston's light late night traffic, we sped downtown--or "dungtun," as some pronounce it--past deserted block after deserted block. i asked my friends if there was a curfew in this neighborhood or something. no, they said: gang warfare had made the area a no-man's land. it looked and felt like a ghost town. we drove through every stoplight we came to--a common practice in kingston, especially late at night, and especially downtown. that tivoli gardens--one of the poorest, toughest garrisons in kingston--has been able to overcome intergang strife and put on such a consistent, successful party is no small feat. as we approached TG, signs of life finally appeared again: bright lights, loud music, plenty people.
when we arrived close to 2am, the party had only just begun to get going. stalls selling jerk-chicken, sweets, and drinks were doing a brisk business, and people had started lining up on either side of the street, bouncing nonchalantly to the music. (passa passa takes place literally in the middle of the street, and the occasional car--not many pass through this area at this hour--has to dodge dancers to get through.) a few folks--some brave, some free, some mad--were dancing away in the street, encouraging onlookers to move a bit more. a few cliques of girls paraded through the crowd in some of the shortest shorts and skirts still able to be considered articles of clothing. their dancing played to the strengths of their outfits: suggestive, sexy, and proud (in spite of the inherent objectification and submissive-sexuality of female dancehall expression/experience). young men and old women walked around selling lighters, rizzla (rolling papers), and long sticks, or small bags, of ganja. well into the wee hours, street urchins of no more than 10 walked around collecting bottles, while adolescents danced and wrestled in the street. and, of course, the soundsystem--comprising several large stacks of speakers--was absoutely blaring. my ears were ringing the next morning--and that's just the effect of the treble: to feel the bass at a jamaican dance is to bear full-bodied witness to music's most essential medium--vibration.
the music playing when we arrived was a bit less recent than the dancehall i am accustomed to hearing out these days. much of it was drawn from the late-90s/early-00s, over riddims such as the "bada bada." at such an intense decibel level, i was reminded how avant-garde dancehall music can be: it was at once aggressive and enveloping, out-there and in-the-pocket--an undeniably powerful and innovative sound. before long we were treated to more contemporary dancehall selections (on riddims such as the "thriller," "blackout," and "scoobay"), followed by about 20 minutes of contemp r&b/hip-hop (with major "forwards"--i.e., crowd response--for tupac and biggie and with some perfunctory pull-ups of usher's "yeah"). then the selecta turned back to reggae--first with a focus on sizzla: a 20 minute set or so that had the people shooting nuff imaginary bullets into the night sky. (notably, i heard a similar short sizzla set at quad last night, and every song they played by him--including at other points in the evening--elicited loud cheers and "guns" in the air.) sizzla clearly still reigns as hometown favorite, despite inroads by kartel and capleton's comeback. by the time we left, the selections had turned more toward contemporary roots reggae: richie spice and jah cure and so forth.
passa passa had a really vibrant feel. a good vibe, fi true. people were clearly enjoying themselves. as things got going, the street filled with dancers--some in groups, some in pairs, some alone. there was little intimidation to be seen or felt. ben told me he narrowly avoided a man trying to elbow him, but that was the extent of any discomfort. (personally, i have never been assaulted or even threatened at a dance in kingston. my bredren andrew swore someone threw a rock at him when i carried him to the cassia park dance last year, but he was wearing a baseball cap, so he was kind of asking for it. nothing of the sort happened to me any of the various times i was in attendance.) one got the sense at passa passa that everyone was welcome to join the party, especially (but not at all limited to) people with a little money to spend. it was a diverse crowd, to be sure: uptown/downtown (or, light/dark, rich/poor), multi-generational, etc. i wish i knew how many attendees were TG residents. occasionally i looked around at the government housing and wondered whether people were sleeping through this, as they do every wednesday night, or whether most residents take part. i think the community probably appreciates at any rate the honor of hosting what has become kingston's premiere party. it is really an amazing accomplishment for the people of tivoli gardens considering all that must be overcome for passa passa to be a success. of course, similar dances take place all the time in all corners of jamaica. passa passa is exceptional, however, in its ability to transcend its locale's reputation for danger--try taking a taxi to TG at any time other than wednesday night--in order to create a safe, fun space where all sorts of people can find some much-needed weekly diversion.
bottom line: passa passa is the most accessible the "real thing" gets. as someone who has spent close to a year living in kingston and attending dances all over the island, i can assure you that this is the one to which i would carry my friends, without any deep anxiety about their safety. (but no baseball caps! or shorts, for that matter.) i won't use the 't' word here, but if you are a person who wants to visit jamaica and who's idea of a night out dancing means more than joining a hotel conga-line, passa passa is the real all-inclusive.