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Passa Passa street parties sweep Jamaica

Jacqueline Charles [The Miami Herald]

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- It's dawn, and the fusion of hip-hop and reggae rhythms has transformed one of this city's grittiest slums into a cross between Girls Gone Wild and Cirque du Soleil.

Gyrating women in barely-there tops and minis flash intimate flesh while roving video cameras document every erotic bump and grind -- at the most risque angles possible.

The sexually charged displays have come to characterize Passa Passa, a new party craze that has spread outside Jamaica and even to Miami while sparking an uproar in some parts of the Caribbean, including calls for its ban.

But in its birthplace in west Kingston, this controversial phenomenon is bringing peace to a community once known for its violence and armed gangs, and transforming it into the most unlikely of tourist destinations.

"It's a vibe," Kiki Lewis, 27, a local radio DJ said as she sipped a beer and another DJ hyped the crowd with witty banter, begging them to let loose to the latest high-energy tracks in the reggae-offspring genre known as dancehall.

"If you want to hear the latest happenings in dancehall, it's the place to be. If you want to see the latest dances, it's the place to be. You are like in a whole new world when you are down there," Lewis said.

Its streets made famous by reggae great Bob Marley, west Kingston is for many a war zone, a place where crime gang bosses known as "Dons" control not just the streets but the guns, the drugs and the votes.

The party straddles two of the area's most notorious slums, Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens. A tenement of shanties and rundown, four-story walk-ups, Tivoli is ground zero in Jamaica's "garrison politics" -- the neighborhood gangs enlisted by political parties in the 1970s to enforce loyalty and deliver the votes at election time.

A stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party, Tivoli's notoriety remains. A police raid there five years ago sparked days of violence and led to 25 deaths. Then-Prime Minister P.J. Patterson had to deploy army troops to restore calm.

But while its continuing troubles -- the area is reputedly controlled by a crime boss known as "The President" -- long kept outsiders away, it is now luring them by the thousands from 6 p.m. Wednesdays and well past sunrise Thursdays. When most folks are on their way to work, the party at Passa Passa is just beginning.

"People are curious," said Johann Dawes, a local director with HYPE TV, an MTV-like, Caribbean-wide entertainment channel that routinely covers Passa Passa parties. That curiosity, coupled with west Kingston's rich if troubled cultural and political history and help from the local don in keeping the party safe, "is what makes Passa Passa works," Dawes said.

"There is no other area in Jamaica that people are certain they can go to and they won't be robbed," he said. "They have their own little security force in that area. Here is an area that has the reputation of being a `rude boy' area, but at the same time you get ... to go in there and have fun."

Promoter Dylan Powe said Passa Passa began three years ago when he and cousin O'Neil decided to set up their sound system outside their family-owned store on Spanish Town Road across from Tivoli Gardens, to tune it up before the weekend party circuit.

"Gradually it became known that on a Wednesdays, one of the best sound systems was playing music on the street," said the not-at-all-bashful Powe, 35. "More and more people started coming out."

The name, Powe added, was coined by a local DJ nicknamed Maestro, who after noticing the diversity of the crowd -- reggae stars, inner-city and middle-class residents -- called it passa, the Jamaican slang for a mix of people.

One recent Thursday morning, the party was going strong as the distinct smell of marijuana wafted through the air and vendors cruised the jam-packed street, hawking gum, beer and ganja leaves. One group of young men showed off improvised dance moves, feet fluttering and pounding the pavement in synch with the beat.

With each passing hour, the crowd grew as regulars like Medusa, a gold-locked dancer known as much for her provocative dance moves as her outlandish outfits, showed up.

Hoping to be noticed -- and wind up on the videos being filmed -- Medusa arrived in white fishnet, pink top and fur-like pink leg warmers, underlining that Passa Passa is as much a party as catwalk and business.

Videographers come in to tape the weekly parties and then sell the DVDs, fueling the party's popularity in the Caribbean and even as far away as Miami and New York.

Cellphone companies have tapped into it as a marketing outlet, and artists have made it a backdrop for music videos as well as a testing ground for their talents. There are even Passa Passa message boards on the Internet.

Even the local drugstore -- Miles Enterprises -- has jumped in, offering up "reasonably priced" $58 bottles of Moet Champagne and $83 bottles of Hennessey cognac, said owner George Miles, whose son is Powe's business partner.

Miles said the street party has brought peace. Others agreed that so far there haven't been any violent incidents at Passa Passa.

It's not that folks aren't armed. But locals say there is an unwritten rule that because "The President" has sanctioned the party, order must be kept.

Whether it's the gangster-enforced truce or the desire by these poor communities to shed their negative image, most agree that Passa Passa is contributing to something west Kingston hasn't had for years: peace.

"The peace and tranquility the area has enjoyed has made life so much better for the people there," said Jamaica Labor Party leader Bruce Golding, a parliament member who represents west Kingston. "Even if things happen that ordinarily would provoke a reaction, they no longer encourage that or allow it."

By opening up the community to middle- and upper-class Jamaicans, as well as rival poor neighborhoods, Golding said, Passa Passa is showing Jamaicans and others that west Kingston -- and Tivoli in particular -- is "not the terrible place that it has been made out to be. People feel free to come into it."

Still, what's popular here is not widely accepted everywhere else.

Barbados has strongly criticized the sexually charged dancing in Passa Passa. Earlier this year, Grenada Education Minister Clarice Charles wanted it banned, complaining that it was leading to promiscuity. Girls under 18 are now kept out by police.

Powe, the promoter, admits things can get a bit raunchy at Passa Passa.

"Music is the catalyst for . . . that kind of behavior," Powe said. "We know our demographics, we know how to make them go wild, both with the rhythms and what to say on the mic. That gets the crowd motivated and make the girls go mad."

___

© 2006, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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