Dawn Penn: on celebrating sound system culture at the Royal Festival Hall
07 Jan 2017
To kick off the year, Outlook Festival are celebrating their 10th anniversary as the largest sound system culture festival in Europe with a tidal force of reggae royalty taking over the Royal Festival Hall for one night only. Imagine this: Pharoahe Monch, Congo Natty, General Levy and Gentlemen’s Dub Club, are among the musicians who have joined forces to create an explosive event that will shake the foundations of the new year before it has scarcely begun. Included in this line-up is international reggae star, Dawn Penn – a Grammy nominated artist and receiver of the Martin Luther King Award for her contribution to Jamaican music. gal-dem briefly spoke with Penn to get an inside view on her involvement in the anniversary celebrations.
Dawn Penn, born 1953 in Kingston, Jamaica, has been dubbed as one of the most influential female reggae artists. Her career began in 1960, a time for rocksteady and reggae in the UK, where she first recorded songs such as ‘You Don’t Love Me’ – a familiar track to the ears of reggae fans worldwide. The sultry sounds and success of this hit allowed her to collaborate with artists such as Chaka Demus and Pliers, Beenie Man and Vybz Kartel. 22 years on, Penn continues to be a prominent part of reggae music, reinventing her sound and with the influx of a new generation of fans as they discover her timeless classics.
“I’m just so happy to have been selected to take part in what is bound to be a fantastic event and sing alongside such a sophisticated and talented orchestra.”
For the last decade, Outlook Festival has paid homage to its original sound system roots by giving exposure to up and coming underground artists who may not be in the forefront of mainstream pop culture. The festival has generated audiences from all over the world, queuing up to see the most favoured artists and DJs in dubstep, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass and dub, something that Penn is extremely excited to participate in, “I’m just so happy to have been selected to take part in what is bound to be a fantastic event and sing alongside such a sophisticated and talented orchestra.” Genres like reggae, dub and lovers rock were popularised by the sound system culture at dance halls and house parties in the Caribbean.
Composer Tommy Evans and trumpeter and arranger Matt Roberts are part of the 20-piece Outlook Orchestra. The orchestra combines live effects, dub mixing and mind-blowing arrangements of old and new reggae roots music. Though Penn will be blessing the audience by fronting the Orchestra with her vocals, she tells me she is also a musician; proficient in the violin, the piano and percussion instruments. In addition, she has experience of performing with orchestras, “I performed with The Y Choral Group accompanied by The Jamaica Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra before, I’m sure this will be a great performance.”
The performance is set to take the stage Thursday 12 January and will become part of the 60 years of history at the Royal Festival Hall. Penn has always taken a hands on approach and contributes where she can to ensure the best quality performance, “Being part of this musical project, it keeps me fit, it keeps me going and it gives me a lot of energy and strength to continue with my music endeavours.”
“Sound system culture originated in Jamaica. It is a means whereby artists and musicians can have their music heard in an affordable and accessible way.”
From the plethora of artists and musicians that will be performing at this event, it is likely to produce a show like no other. Penn emphasises the importance of sound systems because the “culture originated in Jamaica. It is a means whereby artists and musicians can have their music heard in an affordable and accessible way. As artists, we were able to hear our music and other music that the radio stations might not want to broadcast.”
It is not only sound system culture that we can celebrate here. The Royal Festival Hall has a rich history of classical music and dance in its catalogue of events, with The Philharmonic Orchestra being residents of the venue, it is steeped in classical music traditions. It is only in the last five years, that a wider range of genres have been introduced into its catalogue. From Ravi Shankar’s Opera, to Chineke! Orchestra which bring together BME Classical Musicians of the UK and Europe. Much like the sound systems of Jamaica, venues like Royal Festival Hall play an integral part in supporting multicultural music in a multicultural society. As a classical trained musician myself, it is humbling to see this venue embrace an all-inclusive approach in the arts.
The Outlook Orchestra celebrating sound system culture at the Royal Festival Hall is a music-lover’s dream come true. As a musician and all-round mega fan of reggae music, I believe that collaboration is a powerful exchange of knowledge and creativity and this exchange is priceless. The music and performers of the Outlook Orchestra come from a prominent history, and will make history themselves this month, as a largely BME musical collective performing and taking up space in such a prestigious location. Come and witness this explosive and once in a lifetime collaboration – this piece of history is certainly not one to be missed.
More information on the line-up and tickets here