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Interview: Reggae legend Dawn Penn on the Jamaican School of Music, working with Bob Marley, and One

Our regular writer and interviewer Jamie Loyn was lucky enough to have a chat with reggae artist Dawn Penn about her background in church and at music school, as well as her work with reggae icon Bob Marley...

Are you having a mint tea there? Is that the best for your voice?

Honey and lemon my dear. Do you sing then?

Yeah, I was trained at church. Isn’t that where you first started? Doing Gospel?

What it is, well, I was never singing like that. I used to play the keyboard whilst my two other sisters sing, and we all did the violin as a subject in the house on a Saturday. We played piano because we wanted to play that though.

My Dad also had an accordion. Y'know, one that you play like this [mimicks hand motion]. We had what they call a Konstantina. The one the Italian people use on the street to get money. So I used to actually played piano when the scenes in the church happened.

It's amazing when people play and do that with their feet [mimicking feet motion].

Oh yes, we had the pipe organ with all the pipes all the way down. And you had to pull all the plugs to get the sound. So I was never singing along until one time I entered a youth prize thing. I ended up playing the keyboard and singing a song named "I'll Be”. I came second in this, so then I entered the Jamaica independence festival in the same year. It was a competition that went on from summer to summer on August 6th.

So I played classical music there with Hazel Stewart, whose dad was also a minister. We played a duet and came first, then we were doing a pop section with pop music, well music in general. I played my own song 'Make Up Your Mind' on piano and I sang. I had to enter as Connie McGann because Mr. Tyrone Evans of The Paragons deemed Dawn Penn a "not-good-enough" stage name.

This happened in 1967 and that got me a scholarship to the Jamaican School of Music to do my violin and piano studies there. Schuman and Tchaikovsky; Mendelsohn and Handel. All these different people that I used to be doing theory of music to - relevance of music…things like that. The examiner came from the UK, Royal School of Music people into Jamaica, and you couldn't tell whether you'd passed or you'd failed when they sat behind the desk like that [making a grumpy face]. Well that was my rather long story for you.

I liked that story. Have you got your daughter into it as well?

Abby: I'm not really quite ready for the whole music industry yet. I sing in the shower…and on snapchat.

When I work on Hospital Radio people always request their favourite shower songs.

Dawn: Are you serious? My Mum was a nurse on the wards so I know what that's about.

They always request your songs when it's sunny as well. Who's your favorite reggae artist?

Me [as she bursts into laughter].

I shouldn't be so selfish. I mean I like Bob Marley too. I was around him in the studio when journalists discovered him back in ‘62. I was with him for like 6 months. We created things like ‘Mis-shapen Potato Chips’, ‘You've Got Soul’ with all the poeple like Jimmy Norman and Arthur Jenkins, people like that from the US.

Bob was quite wild then wasn't he?

[chuckling] Let’s not even go there. That is an understatement!

And who do you like on the scene at the moment?

Jah Cure. I like his tone and I like the way he sings as well. And Chronixx; he's alright so what can you do?

Are you coming to One Love festival this year?

I've sung at it before but I didn't know that I was invited to that! I'm invited to the Trojan 20th anniversary festival around the country and through Europe, St. Sebastian and then France all these places.

Until that time I didn't know that I had to declare myself as a person to the French government. I've been there all the time and only just found out this thing started from about 10 years ago. Some crazy kind of time! There were some treaties with France and Worldwide. America, who have a jolly good time with England, pay next to nothing and they treat them like royalty. The people from Jamaica who go there now just don’t know about this treaty to alleviate tax. Guaranteed! The world is simple but tricky as always.

I'll leave you to your tea now. Thanks very much and break a leg.

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