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Ian Penn: a promising 24-year-old musician who just ended his 28-city DIY tour across the PHL

Dancing coconut trees, kids in their underwear running barefoot in the sand, local masseurs in purple caregiver uniforms looking for a beat tourist, waiters in board shorts holding laminated menus, clouds of barbecue smokes leaking out from beachfront restos, sun-kissed natives shouting “rooms! rooms! rooms!” at the top of their lungs, and the sun creating a garden of diamonds as it kisses the ocean waves welcome my daughter and I as we look for Coco Aroma at the shores of Puerto Galera.

Home of many local bands like The Jerks, Reggae Mistress, Rizal Underground, Coco Aroma is a famous respite for artists and musicians. Its owner, affectionately called “Tita Cora”, loves to host folk and reggae acts at her resort bar, treating artists as family. She jokingly calls some of them who stay there for more than a month as her “patients.” Last week, she happily sponsored Ian Penn’s 29th show for his DIY Philippine tour.

Always wearing his signature black hat and shades, Ian Penn is easily recognizable even if his donning a chill beach outfit. A big fan of '60s folk music and Jack Kerouac, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter writes like Jim Morrison and plays like Bob Dylan.

“Z! Welcome beers!” he rejoices as he sees me coming in to Coco Aroma.

“Kumusta?” I asked.

“I close my eyes, and I just remember all the people we’ve met, how crazy they were. I’m glad we did it,” he replies as he closes his eyes.

Dubbed as The Invisible Tour, Ian Penn’s first Philippine tour is a hundred percent independent. Penn traveled to 28 cities across the Philippines to share his passion to communities outside Metro Manila.

Ian Penn performing an intimate gig
Ian Penn performing an intimate gig

What makes his multi-city tour unique is this: He had no manager, no roadie, and no car. He only had a few bucks, a book tucked in his black leather jacket, a bag with a pair of black and white shirts, his harmonica, boots and Levi’s on his right shoulder, and guitar on the left.

“I just really wanted to go. I knew that everything that’s going to happen in this tour will change me - how I see things, how I write songs, how I hallucinate. And you know, I was right.”

Everyone close to him was supportive, especially his co-musicians and artists who joined him in some of the shows — Joee Mejias, Mariah Reodica and Miguel de Quiros.

The band Joee and I toured with him for the whole Visayas and Mindanao leg.

“We just want to play our music in all these places, stay in a few days, walk the streets, see what everyone’s doing on the other side of this too-big world,” he shared.

United by music

Penn shared that DIY-ing a tour tested his skills and determination as a musician. He was doing the marketing, logistics and coordination for gigs in cities separated by large bodies of water, culture, political views, and language.

“I was doing cold calls to people I don’t know, to bars I haven’t been, looking for someone to host us or for a community to play with. I had to prove myself worthy of being sponsored every time. It was such a rush. I learned a lot from it, and I feel that I’m a better musician because of it,” he revealed.

“There are venues that didn’t have the standard sound system you find in bars. There was a place in Legazpi that had a secret door to a small library. Sobrang liit tapos walang speakers. We didn’t have a prod team so our hack was to do an unplugged set. Hindi magkakakilala ‘yung mga tao. I introduced myself. I’m always on my toes introducing myself. I introduced Joee. She’s playing with me. At the end of the night, we’re all dancing on Joee and I’s song 'Teknobalat',” he added.

After the Legazpi gig, the audience who were first strangers became Penn’s friends who invited him to have dinner in their houses.

“They drove us around the next day and toured us in the city.”

Always home

Ian Penn making friends in Davao
Ian Penn making friends in Davao

“Sometimes, walang masakyan. I experienced riding on top of a jeep for five hours at night. We were stuck in a lot of places, no ferries, no buses, no nothing to get us to our destination. We had to wait, and wait. We had to hitchhike in rice trucks, sleep in empty terminals, haggle and haggle. Oh I like it all just the same! I would do it all over again,” he shared.

At moments that Penn feel so frustrated and helpless, aid always comes. Everywhere he goes, there’s always someone who wants to feed him. He didn’t have to pay for accommodation or a hotel. He’s somewhat saved every time.

“Wherever I go to the Philippines, I’m home,” he said.

Kindred souls unknown

A millennial with an old soul, the young folk soloist met a lot of artists in hidden bars and creative spaces across the country. Most of them unknown —invisible — like him. He will always remember these bands and will take their music and the experiences he had with them wherever he goes.

Penn went on a voyage to share his music, but also discovered music from different parts of the Philippines that sometimes he can’t really comprehend as they were in local dialects, yet he understood and loved them just the same.  

“The exchange wasn’t one way. The musicians I met were invisible in a way and I heard them sing and jammed with them. I met a folk singer who sounds like Gary Granada but sings in Waray. He plays harmonica like me.”

His most memorable sonic comrades include: Paninap (Angeles City), Rene A Projects (Baguio), Cerise (Davao), Silingan ni Felicity (Cebu), Kubra Commander (Cebu), Jen Rogers (Los Banos), Paolo Ay-ay (Tacloban), Viktor MKII (Naga), Empathy (Davao), Bare & Loops (Laguna), and Thisbeing_ and KRNA (Cagayan de Oro).

“I wish more people from Manila would know more about bands in the regions, although they don’t really mind being unknown. They’re just happy that they have a community who loves their music.”

Let it be

When asked about his songwriting process, Penn tells me that he just writes his “hallucinations.”

“I’m more of a listener when I meet people. I don’t like talking much about myself. Just when I need to. I like to drift around and hear people’s stories. I hallucinate with the truth and the lies,” Penn revealed.

He shared that a stranger commented on the music video of his single “Naked at Three” and said that the song is about a girl who has PTSD. Penn said it could be but for others, it may have a different meaning.

“Nag-cringe ako [but I realize] my songs come alive. The songs have their own life after you write them. You’re not in control anymore. It’s not about that for me, but for him it’s like that. And you just let it be.”

Ian Penn in Ilocos
Ian Penn in Ilocos

Lessons heading home

One of Penn’s observations is that people in the provinces look into each other’s eyes when they talk to each other.

“We could all learn from that,” he says.

Penn said that he’s been writing songs on the road and all the people he met, his experiences and hallucinations will come out in his next record.

Penn’s tour ended in his hometown: Angeles City. His friends and family welcomed him and his sister played originals.

“I feel so lucky we’ve pulled this off. Thankful for the people who have helped and believed in us. I feel like I walked into a dream.” — LA, GMA News

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