‘Small Kings’ by Alessando Zuek Simonetti

Photographer Alessandro Zuek Simonetti and journalist Anice Gaddis went to Jamaica last December, in order to document Kingston’s weekly ‘Passa Passa’ street party.  This was a only few months before the Tivoli Gardens district became the main fighting ground between the Jamaican army and drug traffickers, so it’s fair to say that they were throwing themselves a little beyond the standard tourist-friendly risk parameters. But like true artistes, or the Blues Brothers, they realised they had a mission to complete, and weren’t going anywhere before they’d had a real taste of the most famous dancehall night in the world.

Alessandro came home with an incredible series of b & w photographs and printed them in a book alongside Anice’s personal accounts of Passa Passa. ‘Small Kings’ is available here if you want to get your hands on it, and you gotta be speedy because it’s in a limited edition of only 200.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Alessandro Zuek Simonetti

WORDS: Anicee Gaddis

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 it’s 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 t’s too dangerous for you to show up with a photographer; two foreigners too may, 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. 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 the 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 longing 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 begins 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. He 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 proved to 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 you own body responding to their chemistry. As you 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 hen 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 symbolises 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 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. When you find yourself in conversation with the young man, he offers to type his name into your 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 some fifteen deep. You watch as they practice their signature move, the White Slide, and marvel at their detail, alignment, and timing. You find yourself smiling as one of the boys knowingly raises and lowers his sunglasses without pausing in his dance.

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.  The camera, having allegorically climaxed, homes in on its next subject, a tall, voluptuous empress dressed in a red mesh tutu with a matching wife beater.  She’s 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. When the cameraman turns and points his lens in your direction, you raise a hand to shield your eyes before quickly escaping back into the anonymity of the crowd.



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.

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 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.


The morning light is beginning to break through as you start to look for Grant.  He’s wearing the same expression from seven hours earlier, as if the long night had neither drained nor invigorated him but simply streamed through him like water washing over stones.  He smiles softly as he drives beyond the reaches of Passa Passa and snakes through an ether of bodies moving in the morning shadows.  They are preparing to open their stalls for Coronation Market, a local cooperative that sells everything from fresh produce to machetes to baby formula to handmade trinkets.  The paradox is not lost on you:  the end of the party shouldering up against the start of the business day; citizens pushing out to work as night crawlers whine into infinity; dark pressing up against dawn.

You tell yourself you should be tired after being on your feet for so long but the electricity, though much softer now, is still ebbing through you. You ask Grant how people manage to show up for work after a night like this. He says the lucky ones go home to sleep but the majority head straight to their jobs. He tells you that it’s the people’s ball,a homegrown remedy that helps them deal with reality’s daily grind. It is the pill, he says, that helps smooth out life’s edges.


As Grant weaves past a series of oncoming headlights, he tells you that he was a diehard sound system addict for years when he was younger.

“Mi used to get so mash up at di party mi need an ambulance fi carry mi home,” he says.

You ask him if it’s really that dangerous, especially with all the guns. He says, yes, sometimes, but it can be dangerous anywhere, the guns are everywhere. Grant says he used to carry his own gun, a Heckle & Jeckle he calls it, but gave it up long ago. He explains that he longer needs a weapon these days because he doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove. He says he has a family to take care of now and doesn’t go out to the sound systems much anymore. Nowadays, he tells you, he just carries the tourists.

“So yuh pass a good night?” Grant asks.

You tell him it was like nothing you’ve ever experienced before but that you also felt out of place at times because it wasn’t your party and you felt too conspicuous. He tells you it’s just like anywhere else you go, if you look different people will wonder about you. He tells you beyond that it’s about the attitude, the way you carry yourself. He tells you that you’re not like the other tourists he’s taken to the dance.

“Even if yuh feel outta place yuh nah show it,” he says. “Everybody ‘ave a different ting.”

Grant is speaking to you as if he’s talking to himself while he drives down empty streets populated only by the occasional uniformed worker waiting at a bus stop.

“But mi nah see it judgementically.” he continues after a pause. “Mi see it as you are us and I am you.”

In the window of quiet that follows you hazard a glance at the man who carried you to the dance, the man who hung out invisibly all night and is now seeing you safely home. He will arrive at his yard just in time to get his kids ready for school, he tells you. He will arrive just in time to greet his wife and take a shower and drink a cup of coffee before getting back into his taxi to start another day’s work.

The following evening you find yourself back in the company of the people who had warned you so adamantly against Passa Passa. You recognise the woman who told you that life was cheap in Kingston and her friend that said it was not your party and the man who said you’d end up dead in a ditch.

“So you’re still alive,” someone says. You nod as you sip your drink in composed reflection. “You have a different face today,” someone else says. “You look like you’re holding a secret weapon.


Loading previews