How's this for high concept: blind American bluesman teaches himself the esoteric Tuvan art of throat singing, then travels to the Central Asian republic and wins a throat-singing competition. Which is precisely what happened to Paul Pena, as depicted in the documentary film "Genghis Blues," released recently on video and DVD.
"I was stunned when I won and that's an understatement," Pena laughed. Not only was Pena judged best kargyraa singer (one among throat singing's six styles), but he was also voted "audience favorite," a category created after he was called back for several encores and spoke to the audience in its native language.
Born blind, the 50-year-old singer apprenticed with John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and other bluesmen before performing in San Francisco for many years. Pena also wrote "Jet Airliner," a 1977 hit for rocker Steve Miller. But his musical world turned upside-down on December 29, 1984, when he received a strong Radio Moscow signal on his short-wave set and heard throat singing for the first time. "I thought my radio had busted," he said.
Pena tried unsuccessfully to track down information on the "Tuvash" people, as the announcer had called them, finally stumbling across a CD of throat singing in 1991. "For the next three or four months I played it almost 24 hours a day," he said, "and made all sorts of funny noises."
Through a mix of luck and persistence he eventually learned the technique where, he explained, "you constrict one part of the throat and push hard into another. In that space the sound changes." Having mastered the basic technique, he was able to learn different styles. He concentrated on the bass-heavy overtones of kargyraa, with its similarity to gutbucket blues vocals, which can be heard in "Kargyraa Moan" (RealAudio excerpt) from Genghis Blues, the movie's soundtrack album.
But it wasn't until he met Tuvan singer Kongar-Ol Ondar at a 1993 San Francisco performance that he first throat sang publicly. "I opened up with this popular Tuvan song," Pena recalled. "They hadn't done it in their program, so I had to have learned it elsewhere. He just freaked." The two of them soon became fast friends.
Later that year Pena met Ralph Leighton, founder of the Friends of Tuva Society along with the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Leighton paid for Plena to attend the triennial symposium and throat-singing competition in Kyzyl, Tuva, in 1995, because, Leighton said, "he has this spirit of adventure, of not taking things for granted."
Film makers Roco and Adrian Belic documented both Pena's triumph at the competition as well as his travels around Tuva with Ondar. The trek inspired Pena's moving "Center of Asia" (RealAudio excerpt), a love song to both country and journey. The resulting film was nominated for an Academy Award and won awards at both Sundance and the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Life since Tuva hasn't been easy for Pena, however.
"A lot of things happened within a year of his return," said Leighton. "He inhaled smoke from a fire in his apartment and was in the hospital. Then he lost weight. Finally we persuaded him to see a doctor, who misdiagnosed him as suffering from pancreatic cancer."
Even though he's lost 100 pounds and has round-the-clock care for his pancreatic illness, Pena still performs. He recently played a gig to celebrate the release of Genghis Blues, the new blues disc Giant Killers and the reissue of his 1973 record Night Train. But the experience of being a throat-singing American in Tuva will stay with him forever.
"It's still such a surprise when I think about it," observed Pena. "It's like that guy was in a movie and I watched him. I'd love to go back sometime."