Bluesman Paul Pena is fighting a battle against time.
As he lies bedridden in San Francisco, afflicted with pancreatic cancer,
the documentary film "Genghis Blues" about a pilgrimage he made
is in competition for an Oscar. The film's makers are hoping
Pena will be well enough to attend the Academy Awards in Los Angeles
Pena, a blind singer and guitarist, worked with B.B. King ("I kind of helped make B.B. a little more sophisticated") as well as T. Bone Walker, with whom he toured and recorded, and Bonnie Raitt, among others. Pena also wrote the Steve Miller hit "Jet Airliner."
According to Wadi Rum Productions, Pena, while tending to his dying wife in 1984, heard a short-wave radio broadcast from a Soviet radio station. The broadcast featured the ancient art of throat-singing, a vocal technique native to the region of Tuva, between Mongolia and Russia, in which the singer resonates in several octaves at a time.
Pena spent the next 10 years studying the art, having materials translated from Tuvan into Russian and then English. The low-budget "Genghis Blues" documents the 1995 trip he made to Tuva, for the triennial throat-singing competition.
Besides being nominated for an Oscar, the film, directed by brothers Adrian and Roko Belic, has won 14 major film-festival awards, including the Sundance Festival's 1999 Audience Award.
Pena, who won world-champ honors in the kargyraa substyle of throat singing and audience-favorite honors as well at the 1995 competition, recorded a CD and a live video with Kongar-Ol Ondar, an accomplished Tuvan throat-singer. Ondar & Pena: Genghis Blues and Genghis Blues Live in Concert, feature a mix of the ancient throat-singing style with Pena's pastiche of Mississippi Delta blues, Cape Verdian folk music and Tuvan throat music on songs such as "What You Talkin' About?" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Dürgen Chugaa [Fast Talk]."
Pena's previous recording history consists of a long-out-of-print, self-titled album released in 1973, on Capitol, and an unreleased Bearsville album, which included his original version of "Jet Airliner."
With the interest generated by "Genghis Blues," friends of Pena's have spoken of trying to get his recordings reissued.
"We were wishing we could," Pena said from his San Francisco home recently. "It's still pretty good."
Finding the master tapes may not be so easy, however. "They [Capitol Records] don't seem to even know it's in existence," Pena said. "It's kind of weird that way."