Small Kings

Small Kings is a selection of black and white photographs shot at Passa Passa, a legendary street bashment in Jamaica. These images were made just a few months before the conflicts in downtown Kingston shut down the party and made Tivoli Gardens, a Kingston neighborhood, headline news around the world. Photographer Alessandro Simonetti and writer Anicée Gaddis were on hand to capture the moment. The resulting book is a collage of impressionistic cameos documenting the people, the place and the mood of one very memorable evening in Tivoli Gardens.

Click “Read More” for text and image excerpts from the book.

You Are Us and I Am You: The Small Kings of Tivoli
text by Anicée Gaddis, photographs by Alessandro Simonetti

There’s been talk about hitting Passa Passa ever since you arrived in Kingston. The first Wednesday came and went; your excuse was that the street dance starts too late, usually around 3 AM, and you were tired and couldn’t find a ride.  Still, you woke up on Thursday morning feeling empty with disappointment because having been before you know that the weekly ritual is the stuff of life.  Passa Passa’s Wednesday night throw-down is as notorious for its gunmen and shottas as it is for its battle soundbwoys and young lords of the dancehall.  The experience has been sitting in your body since the last time you were in Jamaica, hibernating like a muscle memory, aching internally, waiting to unleash its lyrical force.

The following week you make definitive plans.  You speak to people about obtaining a photo pass, hire your friend Grant to drive you, and take a long afternoon nap in the sun.  You agree to meet some locals at the uptown club Fiction around midnight, intending to make your exodus in time to arrive for the Passa Passa warm-up.  All goes as scheduled until the uptown posse decides it’s too dangerous for you to show up with a photographer; two foreigners too many, they say, too much static, too much unnecessary risk.  These are tough times, they remind you.  People are hungry.  Life is cheap in Kingston, cheaper still in the Tivoli Gardens quarter that has been home to Passa Passa for close to a decade.  It’s their party, not yours.  Do you really want to end up raped and strangled in a ditch?

This not so subtle attempt to brainwash you out of your evening goes on indefinitely: the gang ganging up on the arriviste.  And you sit and you listen and you wait for their rant to lose steam.  You focus on the activity in the parking lot.  You check the time.  When Grant finally pulls up, you wave a casual goodbye, relieved suddenly to escape the atmosphere of paranoia that is doing little to steer you off course.  If anything Passa Passa is the ultimate ghetto ball fused with the archetypal house party.  The magnificence of scope, feeling, and attitude is something you haven’t found an equivalent to anywhere, ever. The nocturnal panorama of young Kingstonians riding the pendulum between hard fury and a poetic sublime is the kind of medicine that only Jamaica can provide.

Grant drives through darkened streets like his house is on fire and then pulls into a parking spot behind a queue of cars lining a gully.  Together you head to the bar that doubles as an apothecary; a young mother and her teenage daughter who sport matching weaves tend it.  There are people lounging on stools in vintage soda-shop fashion.  Some have brought in Styrofoam plates of fish and dumplings from a vendor outside while others are simply drinking.  Bottles of Red Stripe, Appleton’s and coconut water line the countertop like flowerless bouquets.  The surrounding shelves, stocked with dusty bottles of cough syrup and canned Gunga peas and hair straightener, look like a post-Evans, pre-Warhol collage.  The mood smacks of an after-church ambiance, as if there were a collective pause before the tonal shift from the pastoral to the punctuated.

Outside the bodies are lining up on the opposite side of the street like a paper cutout of one continuous silhouette.  Gradually, almost reluctantly, electric rhythms begin to stab the night air.  You couch your anticipation in the blank-eyed expressions of those around you as Grant hands you a beer and warns you to stay within close visual range. You don’t like the idea of a chaperone, but have not forgotten the warnings from your uptown friends either as Grant points out the infamous “wall” beginning to fill with local gangsters and gunmen who, if photographed, will probably mash up your gear and possibly even your physical person.  They are there to maintain order, he tells you, to make sure the evening comes off peacefully.  He tells you that just the other day a man chopped off someone’s head and carried it around in the street to prove the cops couldn’t touch him because he comes from Tivoli and is protected by the local don.  “Tivoli di garden of small emperors,” Grant says, “and dem nah play.”

It is well past midnight when the echo of infrared flipping from blackness to blinding flashes begins.  You feel disoriented by this new development and start to see everything in a series of snapshots.  The brim of a Yankees cap tipped over a face bathed in shadows.  Lights on, lights off.  A feline waist weaving serpent-like in its view.  Day. Night. Two figures engaging in a spooning whine so that the brim of his cap rests against the shelf of her bare shoulder. You watch as their hips lock in kinetic vibrato and feel your own body responding to their chemistry.  As your vision adjusts to the strobing switchover, you begin to take in the smaller scenarios etching themselves on the margins – a fish-seller frying hand-rolled strips of bammy; a man warming himself by a small bonfire; a woman bending over to take off her shoes.  Suddenly, you feel someone behind you.  The thrust of a tall shadow moves into you for a song and then disperses before you can match face to body.  Your evening’s initiation, you tell yourself.  You have been informally invited.  So this may be your party now, too.

More cameos leave their indent on the crowd.  A cement truck steams through on its way to make a late night delivery.  A boy bucks up his bicycle like he’s riding a mechanical bull.  A Muslim family wearing head coverings and dark glasses drives by in a spit-shined BMW.  A tall, slender, too beautiful policewoman strides forcefully through the ranks.  A battered bus, empty and looming, returns from a drop-off in the country, and a resident madman skanks his way through the fumes and dust circling in its wake.  It’s as if he’s celebrating life and death in the same sentence, as if the destitute vehicle symbolizes his lost altar and newfound persuasion.

It continues from there, the build-up planting itself deeper in your hips now, the meat of the music gaining a steady foothold in your thinking.  Three teenage boys line up in front if you in a visual tapestry of poise, attitude, and metaphor.  They are dressed in vibrant concentricity – purple, green and yellow – an oversaturated replica of the rainbow.  The Supra lavender high-tops one of the dancers is wearing reminds you of your first pair of ballet slippers.  Later, when you find yourself in conversation with the young man, he offers to type his name into your cell phone.  He adds two numbers, Whiteout 1 and Whiteout 2, and tells you that he goes by Rockstar.  Whiteout is the name of his dance crew, which is currently some fifteen deep.  As they toss off a practice round of the White Slide – their signature move – the precision, detail and timing reflect itself as intuitively as three heartbeats finding natural alignment.  It is the yogic effortlessness that comes with obsessive repetition.  It is fluidity practiced, prematurely mastered even, while remaining deeply rooted in the authenticity of the undesigned.

You see the women too, the aspiring queens of the dancehall, the prize possessions and willful instigators.  Just now a photographer is capturing a young woman wearing a hot pink bodysuit with black lace fishnets.  She’s dancing for his Nikon as if it were her partner; her loins are so close to the camera you start to wonder if lens sex could produce a baby.  Her back-up is outfitted in black stilettos and a teal skirt suit along the lines of a flight stewardess with a pop-porn appeal.  The camera, having allegorically climaxed, homes in on its next subject, a tall, voluptuous woman dressed in a red mesh tutu with a matching wife beater.  She is barefoot and the litheness of her movement is offset by the stomping ardency of the men encircling her, a strange cocktail of conquest and deference and desire pulsating from their overheated forms.

It is late or early – you’ve lost track of the time – and are simply sinking into the skin of the night.  The dance crews are battling each other now, competing for the videoman’s spotlight, arching mid-air like hawks on the hunt, daggering spectral demons, battling their own demons.  It is beauty redefined, an ode to something beyond possessed souls raging against the night.  It is Jamaica, a place where the street dance is an epic fable told in small vignettes.  It is a passionate, stoic and paradoxical odyssey on a scale at once minute and grandiose.  It is something alive, lethal and fixating. You begin to feel what your body remembers from the last time, the metaphysical bliss, the hypnotic enlightenment, the soft awakening following a night of brutal deliverance.  This particular high, this medieval ramping shop, is more addictive than the most habit-forming of drugs.

You are watching a group of women freestyling for the camera when an arm suddenly grabs you from behind.  The friction of muscle propels you into movement and you feel caught but do your best to go along with it.  You feel the man behind you lift you off your feet and bend you backwards so that you lose your balance and have to reach for the ground.  As you get up and retreat to the sidelines, he moves with you, beckoning you to keep on with the dance.  You begin to feel the eyes of the crowd on you as the man continues to call you out.

It is much later now as you let the closing scenes wash over you.  Of course the police car’s muted siren forms a silent backdrop to the beat.  Of course the madman chases after it like he’s shooing a chicken out of his yard.  Of course a boy hoists a girl up in his arms and daggers her with the erotic rage and secreted romance that is the true language of Jamaica.  Of course the wave of bodies in motion look like they are swimming through a utopia of heat and admonition created by a god you cannot name.  You drink it all in and you watch it unfold; the night has become part of you now.  You drink it all in and you watch and you are amazed.

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