Words by Erin MacLeod, photos by Allessandro Zuek Simonetti.
Last year, just before New Year’s, writer Anicée Gaddis and photographer Alessandro Zuek Simonetti spent an evening at Passa Passa, Swatch International’s world-famous street dance on Spanish Town Road at Bread Lane, in Kingston, Jamaica. They didn’t stay together that night—both collected their own images, Simonetti with his camera, while Gaddis took mental notes. The result is Small Kings, out now from Automatic Books.
Since the Jamaican government’s incursion into Tivoli Gardens this past May, Passa Passa’s future has become uncertain–Small Kings is probably the closest anyone will get to experiencing Passa Passa for the foreseeable future–but Gaddis and Simonetti do provide a peek into the dance and into dancehall culture as a whole. Writing in the first person, Gaddis draws the reader in, providing a personal, impressionistic tour of Passa Passa that is enjoyable for the experienced and uninitiated alike. As she says, it’s not positioned as journalism, but rather “snapshots, a collection of impressions.” LARGE UP spoke to Gaddis about her love of Jamaica, the book, and her passion for the dance.
LU: How did you get introduced to dancehall?
AG: I was the executive editor of Trace magazine for five years. Each year we would do a destination issue at the end of the year. It was my favorite issue. We would choose a city and go there for six weeks and cover different aspects of the culture—the top young creatives working in film, music, art and architecture. We decided, in 2005, to do a Jamaica issue, which turned out to be a Kingston issue. We went down with a crew and it was my first time in Jamaica. I immediately took to it. I was floating through the experience—it was really magical. And because our editorial team was large, maybe fifteen people, there was room to explore on our own. Because I was responsible for the lifestyle section—we had fashion, music and lifestyle—the project sort of demanded that.
I first went to Passa Passa with a friend I met in Jamaica, and it really made an impact, but I didn’t know anything about the island at that point. It was like I was going in as a child and learning a new language. I was so curious about Jamaica that I just kept going back as often as possible. And then it got to the point where I started staying there, living there for four months, five months at a time. I started working for Chris Blackwell and doing a lot of writing down there. Since Trace is finished, I now write for Puma and Chris Blackwell and some other agencies.
For this trip to Jamaica [when the book was written], I took a vacation for Christmas in Kingston. My friend Alessandro had never been. He wanted to get out of the city, and he asked if he could come to Jamaica and stay with me. So we had an apartment, and we were hanging around in Kingston, with some friends. It was the holidays, and in Jamaica, the holidays are a big deal. So we were with these uptown friends, and I said to Alessandro, “It’s your first time here, you’re a photographer, We have to go to Passa Passa.” He said “I’m down, I’ve got my camera bag ready, let’s go.”
Every time I go to Jamaica, I try to make a point of going to Passa Passa. For me it is like going into the most beautiful art gallery in the world and realizing that the art is actually people with amazing stories and amazing lives and amazing warmth. There is such dynamism. I always try to go alone or with someone who is just going to do their thing.
We didn’t go with the intention of doing a story, it was an accident. We went with the intention of just hanging out and he might snap a few shots. I didn’t want to turn this into a journalistic exercise. So we go to hang out with some friends and they really discouraged us from going because the economy is not so strong, Tivoli is a rough area, and all of our Jamaican friends and colleagues said you really should not go. But we defied them and went and we had the most enlightening night.
LU: What made it so special?
AG: It was just before New Year’s; people were struggling. People need work, and there was a lot of pent up stuff that needed to come out so that was expressed through the music and the dancing. Also, the whole situation with Dudus was really on the hot plate and there was a lot of energy, frustration, excitement, and questions about what was going to happen with him. There was also the Vybz/Mavado publicity campaign, there was the holiday spirit, and it just happened to be a balmy and beautiful night. There was a lot of electricity in the air.
As well, I didn’t see a lot of tourists. Usually at Passa Passa you see a lot of tourists: a lot of Japanese, maybe some French people, but this time I didn’t really see any tourists, maybe one or two. So we were some of the few in the mix who were the outsiders. It was neither here nor there; we just got a lot of normal acknowledgement and warmth. That’s the great part of Passa Passa. It’s so organic and natural that you’re never disinvited. It’s the people’s party; it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s the people’s ball. And there’s just so much beauty. I am always overwhelmed by the visual palette and the energy. I don’t think I could handle it every week! It would be too much.
LU: What do you think was different about Passa Passa different from other dances: a Boasy Tuesday, a Weddy Wednesday, an Uptown Monday, or a Rae Town Sunday? What is or was so special about Passa Passa?
AG: I think because of Tivoli. Tivoli is a garrison that has a lot of character and unity. It has overcome a lot of difficulty, and there’s always been a very strong bond there. The first New Year’s I spent in Jamaica, which was in 2005, was in Tivoli with a friend of mine. He invited me to his house with his girlfriend and everyone was just hanging out on the porch drinking champagne. When New Year’s struck all these guns went off and I said, Oh, is this cool? and he said “Yeah—it’s a celebration. The safest place you’re going to be tonight is right here.” And it’s true. There’s a protective barrier and a safety and a trust in Tivoli, which, from an outside perspective, is one of the hottest in terms of danger in Jamaica. So maybe it is because you are going into that arena; you’re going into what is perceived as the danger zone. And you are having the best night of your life because everyone shows up. I think that some of the other parties are more catered to the trendy dancers or the cool Japanese soundboys and this one is literally every demographic, every age group.
I saw a little old lady there, she looked like she had just come from church and she was selling polaroids that she was taking. She was having as much fun as the three dancers who called themselves Whiteout—and an old man just sitting, eating his fish. So Passa Passa to me feels like church. The others feel more like an outside club where you can have a wild night.
LU: What is it about dancehall and soundsystem culture that so powerfully draws foreigners to Kingston?
AG: I’m a dancehall junky. I just love the music; I love the theatre. It’s a ball. There’s a lot of drama and there’s a lot of action. There are always dancers, the guy chatting on the mic—it’s more than just the music; it’s the energy that this whole system brings. The origin of some of the better street parties, as I understand it, is to be outdoors in nature. That’s also an element. But it probably boils down to Jamaican people. They have so much style and flair and personality and creativity just bubbling around. I think that’s what it is. Mavado can sing about brushing his teeth and it sounds gorgeous and moving.
LU: And what do you want readers to gain from the book?
AG: That Jamaica is more than the sum of its parts. It’s layered. The people are layered an nuanced and spiritual—not necessarily in the religious sense, but in the human sense. They have such an internal beauty that is expressed in the culture and the dancing and the music and the soundbattles. Jamaicans as a people are some of the richest and most gorgeous that I have encountered. And I think that the true expression of that is for me at something like Passa Passa where you see so many dimensions.
LU: What do you think you captured in Small Kings? What piece of Passa Passa does the book grasp?
AG: I had a sense in my skin that I had to make it there that night, even though I had no idea what would happen in the future. What piece of history? It’s hard to say. It was a simple night out. But it was a simple night out that I’m still thinking about a year later. It was such a good and full night. Tivoli is not the same any more since it was raided and that’s a whole other topic, but I think there was a whole lot of negativity and unnecessary violence that took people through hell, so maybe what this captured was innocence and joy before the roof collapsed.
Anicée Gaddis is now working on a short story collection about Jamaica and an upcoming Jamaica issue of Big magazine.