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The Story of a Blind Blues Musician's Triumphant Journey to the Lost Land of Tuva
Paul Pena played blues with the greats T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Bonnie Raitt. In 1995, the blind bluesman became the first American ever to compete in an unusual contest of multi-harmonic "throatsinging."
The Autonomous Republic of Tuva, wedged between Siberia and Mongolia, for centuries has been isolated from the rest of the world by jagged mountains and Soviet restrictions. Only recently have the Tuvan art form of throatsinging become known to outsiders.
Pena discovered Tuvan throatsinging on a shortwave program of Radio Moscow twelve years ago. Multiple voices emanated from a single vocalist and the sounds gripped him like nothing he had ever heard. For the next nine years he worked to produce similar overtones with his own voice and to incorporate throatsinging into his blues music.
Unexpectedly in 1993, Pena discovered that Tuvan throatsingers were on their first concert tour of the U.S.. After their performance, the deep-voiced bluesman broke into his own self-taught style of throatsinging and serenaded the musicians with Tuvan traditional songs! The throatsingers were amazed by Pena's mastery of the Tuvan art form and likened his rich voice to the sounds of tremors in the earth. They insisted that "Chershemjer" (Earthquake) travel to Tuva for the next tri-ennial throatsinging contest which would be held in 1995.
Eleven years after he first heard throat singing, Paul Pena entered the National Theatre of Tuva to make history. The blind bluseman's performance was so well received, he became the 1995 throatsinging champion in the style of kargyraa. He also captured the "audience favorite" award for the week-long competition. The Tuvan people had never seen or heard anyone like him.
Pena was honored by the Tuvan people, not only because he mastered kargyraa, but he also learned to speak their language. His friendship flourished with Kongar-ol Ondar, the throatsinging champion who had invited Pena three years earlier. Ondar hosted Pena as the bluesman experienced the country he once believed he would never visit.
"Genghis Blues" is a film about exploration and friendship. It is the story of a man whose struggle in life is not defined by conformity and rules but by an unquenchable curiosity, and love of music. Pena's story is truly an inspiration to all.
Paul Pena is the son of immigrants from Cape Verde, West Africa, and lives in San Francisco where he plays a unique blend of Mississippi Delta blues, Cape Verdian folk, and Tuvan throat music. As a blind Creole-American, Pena has continually struggled against injustice through the messages in his music. To Pena, his music represents the "inter-cultural harmony which is becoming increasingly important for the development of a sustainable world environment."
The Republic of Tuva, in the heart of Asia, was once an independent country whose people are proud descendants of the conqueror, Genghis Khan. Over one third of the population continues traditional nomadic ways of animal-herding.
For centuries after the collapse of Khan's empire, geographical, political, and cultural isolation resulted in the evolution of various unique and highly developed art forms in Tuva. The most remarkable, "khoomei" (translated as "throatsinging") confounds Western academicians to this day. People in Tuva have learned to produce multiple tones simultaneously while singing. Throatsingers have been described as sounding like "a one-man quartet" and "a bullfrog swallowing a whistle."
Tuva is comprised of a mixture of desert plateaus and green valleys ringed by snow-capped mountains of the Sayan and Altai ranges. The powerful contrasts of their environment are said to be the inspiration for the Tuvans' development of five distinct styles of throatsinging.
Most Tuvans practice a mix of Tibetan Buddhism and animist shamanism despite aggressive Soviet attempts to eliminate "paganism" since their occupation of Tuva in 1944. In 1991, the suppression of a popular call for independence in Tuva resulted in the massacre of hundreds of people including both Tuvans and Russians.
Kongar-ol Ondar, who won the 1992 throat-singing contest, invited his friend, Paul Pena, to participate in the contest of 1995. Currently, Pena and Ondar have recorded an album, "Genghis Blues," which combines elements of Mississippi Delta blues, Cape-Verdian ballads, and Tuvan throat music.
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