It is a sound once heard, never forgotten. A sound with the power to rearrange your mind and transform your life. That's what it did for San Francisco-based blind blues singer Paul Pena, and "Genghis Blues," an enchanting documentary on a magnificent obsession, shows how it all went down.
The sound is that of throat singing, the ability to create two, even three distinct vocal tones simultaneously. The Washington Post calls the results "feats of harmonic acrobatics" and Pena describes it as sounding "just like Popeye singing the blues."
Throat singing is a national passion in Tuva, a North Dakota-sized Asian nation largely populated by nomadic herdsmen. Located north of Mongolia and now a part of the Russian Federation, Tuva was briefly independent from 1921 to 1944 (collectors have the vivid postage stamps to prove it) and takes pride in its association with Genghis Khan, whose top general, the conqueror of Europe, called Tuva home.
Tuva had also piqued the curiosity of celebrated physicist Richard Feynman, who believed that a nation with a capital city named Kyzyl had to be of interest. He and a friend, Ralph Leighton, formed Friends of Tuva, corresponded with Tuvans in their own language, and even got three Tuvans into a Rose Bowl parade.
Pena, not surprisingly, knew none of this back in 1984, when he picked up a random Radio Moscow broadcast while scanning his shortwave radio. A respected musician who'd played with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker (and whose grandparents were from the Cape Verde Islands, home of world music star Cesara Evora), Pena heard throat singing for the first time and was transfixed. "That's for me, man," he remembers saying to himself. "That's something I could get off doing."
It took Pena years to find anyone who even knew what he'd been listening to, further years to both learn some of the Tuvan language via English-Russian and Russian-Tuvan Braille dictionaries and to teach himself how to sing in kargyraa, one of the key throat-singing styles.
When virtuoso Tuvan throat singer Kongar-Ol Ondar (who's recorded with Frank Zappa, the Kronos Quartet and Mickey Hart) gave a concert in the Bay Area in 1993, Pena surprised him afterward by breaking into some impromptu vocalizing in the lobby. Greatly impressed, Ondar invited Pena to come to his country's next National Throat-Singing Symposium and Competition, scheduled for 1995.
With some financial help from Friends of Tuva ("One of our ideas is just to do crazy things," admits co-founder Leighton), an improbable, ragtag expedition to Tuva was put together. Besides Pena, members included friend and recording engineer Lemon DeGeorge; the late Mario Casetta, KPFK's irascible world music authority; and two young filmmakers, brothers Roko and Adrian Belic, who between the two of them wrote, directed, produced, edited and shot the film, their first.
Under the aegis of Ondar, whom the voice-over describes as "a combination of John F. Kennedy, Elvis and Michael Jordan" in his home country, the expedition went everywhere and met everyone, from the legends of throat singing to Ondar's mother. They also were guests at numerous celebrations at which the slaughter of sheep (shown in graphic detail in the film) was the main event.
Singing in the competition, Pena was a monster hit, living up to his nickname of "Earthquake" and astonishing the Tuvans with both his vocal work and his willingness to speak their obscure language. Despite being dogged by health and other problems, Pena and his companions clearly had the experience of their lives.
As culled by the Belic brothers from 150 hours of video, the 88-minute "Genghis Blues" (which won an audience award at Sundance) is nothing to write home about in terms of technique, but the story it tells couldn't be more charming. And the film's makeshift qualities echo the off-the-wall spirit of the trip itself. A more improbable and endearing yarn can't be imagined.
* No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: graphic scene of sheep slaughter.
A Wadi Rum presentation. Director Roko Belic. Producers Roko & Adrian Belic. Screenplay Roko Belic. Cinematographers Roko & Adrian Belic. Editor Roko Belic. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
In limited release.