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The 'Passa Passa' phenomenon
BALFORD HENRY, Observer writer
Friday, November 21, 2003

A vendor taking advantage of the economic activities generated by Passa Passa.

IT IS THE biggest thing happening on the streets of Kingston these days.

Alluring women from all over the Corporate Area, vendors strewn along the sidewalk hawking from food to "high grade", the safest, friendliest atmosphere one could imagine for an area which only two years earlier witnessed the mass killing of 25 civilians and two members of the security forces.

The line gets longer and longer at Passa Passa.

It is the corner of Bread Lane and Spanish Town Road, facing the recently built Tivoli Court on a Wednesday night when uptown and downtown dance-crazy fans meet for the weekly 'Passa Passa'.

The weekly sessions, created in the trend of predecessors like the Rae Town oldies sessions, only started on Ash Wednesday night this year, but has grown by leaps and bounds since then.

World record holder for the most wickets in Test cricket Courtney Walsh (right) chatting with Wee Pow of Stone Love at Passa Passa.

As youthful entrepreneur Oneil Miles, who started it using his sound system, Swatch International, as anchor sound admits, even he is surprised by the sudden success of the event.

He attributes the overwhelming success to BET doing a video shoot there featuring dancehall stars Mr Lex, Wayne Wonder, and American rap acts Capone and Noriega.

Newly elected deputy leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party, James Robertson (left) hangs out at Passa Passa with Saleem Lazarus.

"From there on it just grew bigger and bigger with people from uptown who saw it on BET joining those from downtown every week," Miles enthused.

"People from all over come. Dem park dem vehicle or dem bike or dem bicycle knowing that nobody will touch it. People wear any amount of jewellery without fear. So it's good. We showing the country that it can go on yah so, so it can go on anywhere else," reasoned Carlton "Popcorn" McBridge, an elder in the community who has been involved in promoting music and sports events for years.

Carlton 'Popcorn' McBridge, one of the regulars at Passa Passa. (Photos: Joseph Wellington)

"A man can mash a man pon him corn and him doan even pay him no mind."

The session has won the support of local cable stations like RE TV as well as mainstream television's TVJ, which have brought it to the people and helped to encourage its growth.

It even has the support of police Superintendent Harry Daley, who is in charge of the Denham Town station. Daley fully supports the intention of the project, which is to create a social meeting place for sometimes politically warring communities like Tivoli Gardens, Wilton Gardens (Rema), Arnett Gardens (Concrete Jungle) and Matthews Lane, as well as to inspire increased economic activity in the area.

The police's main worry is that the session goes on until daylight, sometimes until eight in the mornings, creating traffic problems on the busy Spanish Town Road.

"The police would prefer that we end it by 6:00 am, as there are complaints from the JUTC about buses not being able to use the road, but the people want it to go on forever," Miles explained.

Popcorn recounted only one major road mishap in the history of the session, when a man who was dancing in the streets jumped onto a woman's car bonnet. "We joined together and fixed it," he added.

"It is the biggest thing right now," said Delroy Thompson, who runs the One Love Studio in Tivoli Gardens. "Nothing is going on on a Wednesday uptown so everybody comes downtown."

The biggest mistake this writer made in doing this piece was going to 'Passa Passa' much too early. How early? 11:00 pm. It was a virtual ghost town, except for the people drinking beer inside Miles' Drugs Enterprise, an affiliate of Miles' drug store on West Queen Street, which is operated by Oneil's family. The crowd didn't start appearing until about 1:00 am and even at 4:00 am people were still arriving in droves.

As Oneil explained, this is a deliberate strategy. Since he couldn't afford the time to split the session into two nights -- oldies and dancehall -- they decided to do everything one night, Wednesday.

They chose Wednesday, because it was the only night nothing was going on around the Corporate Area. For example, Mondays were "Hot Mondays" for Fire Links, etcetera on Hagley Park Road and Tuesdays were Ladies Night at the Asylum.

After settling on Wednesday, Oneil committed Swatch to playing every week with special guest selectors, including Tony Matterhorn, Ricky Trooper and the Stone Love, Metromedia, Travellers and Jam Rock crews.

They decided to accommodate oldies music until 1:00 am featuring the effervescent Bop "Alonzo Hawk" Campbell. At one o'clock, the younger Swatch crew, featuring O'Neil, Nicholas Smith (Nico Skill), Carl Shelley (Maestro), who actually gave it the name 'Passa Passa', Oliver Hopeton (Moody Mash) and Richard Campbell (Little Richie), playing until dawn.

This is exactly what has led to the late hours. Older people come up to 1:00 am to hear Hawk's vintage records, while the teenagers start rolling in at 1:00-2:00 am to hear the latest dancehall.

In fact, the period between one o'clock and two o'clock is known as new music hour, when the selectors introduce the latest releases slated to make the local charts, and record producers line up to get some air time.

Things have now reached the stage where they are thinking of employing a team of hometown security personnel for safety as the lines stretch further and further down Spanish Town Road.

"You know Friday night was the first time I played in Rema for seven years," O'Neil said as he watched the proceedings.

"Only the police can mash dis up now," said one unnamed vendor who was among the dozens busy capturing some of the economic opportunities the sessions have triggered.

As Popcorn explained: "It is a chance for them to make a living and enjoy themselves at the same time."

But, most of all it is a chance for the rest of the society to see that communities like Tivoli Gardens, Denham Town, Arnett Gardens and Wilton Gardens, which are commonly referred to as being volatile can actually have fun and try to earn a dollar in peace and harmony and without a shred of political evidence.


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