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The Boston Phoenix Deep Throat

Getting the Genghis Blues

By Banning Eyre

AUGUST 30, 1999:  It's the stuff of moviemaking legend. Semi-pro filmmakers with limited funds and semi-pro gear cobble together a film whose story and setting are so irresistible and well-realized that moviegoers leave the theater raving. I'm not talking about the witch in the Maryland woods. I'm talking about a blind San Francisco blues man who throatsings his way into the hearts of two million Tuvans in the steppes of Central Asia. The film is called Genghis Blues, and though it's every bit as unlikely as the Blair Witch phenomenon, for my money, it's far more rewarding.

At the center of this campfire story, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Festival, is the peculiarly Tuvan art of throatsinging, which involves isolating overtones of the human voice so that a single singer can produce layers of sound -- from a deep growl to a eerily soaring, melodic whistle. Throatsinging has become a world-music fad rivaled only by the didgeridoo. This decade has seen Tuvan singers tour the globe and record with collaborators as diverse as Bulgarian women's choirs and the late Frank Zappa. So it isn't surprising that Paul Pena, a veteran blues singer/guitarist of Cape Verdean ancestry, would have heard the sound. Pena has played with blues artists from John Lee Hooker to Bonnie Raitt, and he composed Steve Miller's hit "Jet Airliner." But when he came across a Tuvan song while monitoring Radio Moscow on his shortwave, something happened. Not only did he love this unearthly sound, but he found that he could replicate it.

Pena began collecting Tuvan recordings and learning to sing traditional songs. He even incorporated Tuvan vocal techniques into his blues act. Then, as the film reveals early on, an eccentric outfit called Friends of Tuva brought throatsinging legend Kongar-ol Ondar to San Francisco, whereupon the beefy Pena approached Ondar in the theater lobby and held forth with the sound that would soon earn him the epithet "Earthquake." Right on the spot, the astounded Ondar invited Pena to come to Tuva and compete in an annual throatsinging competition. In the film, Ralph Leighton, a Friends of Tuva co-founder, says, "I thought that was crazy enough to qualify for a Friends of Tuva project."

The sponsors assembled a suitably gonzo team for the expedition, including a grizzled, beatnik DJ (Mario Cassetta) and two amateur documentarians from Chicago (brothers Roko and Adrian Belic). The cross-cultural antics that unfold once this crew touches down in remote Tuva -- now a neglected province of Russia -- are by turns hilarious, awkward, harrowing, and touching. But the success of Genghis Blues reflects more than the film's zany exoticism. The Belic brothers prove adept at telling a complicated story briskly and vividly. They use recurrent images to great effect -- Pena's cane scanning the San Francisco sidewalk as he walks, his fingers scanning Braille as he labors to translate Tuvan into Russian and then English, birds of prey circling in the azure, Tuvan sky.

The Belics work in fascinating archival footage of Tuva, and of Ondar when he was a Tuvan folk prodigy. In between the two nights when Pena performs at the competition, the team takes a staggeringly beautiful tour of the rugged province. Pena's folksy bluntness is always refreshing. "You're a devil," he tells Ondar when the Tuvan insists he bathe himself in the icy waters of the Chadaana River. There's something poignant about going to such effort to expose a blind man to the beauties of nature. So when Pena complains, "They could do all this shit without me," it hits home. "Most people get 95 percent of their information through their eyes," Pena points out, without a trace of sentimentality. "That puts me decidedly in the deviant category among human beings." As a heartbreaking Tuvan lament plays, we see sloping blue mountains over green fields, traditional wrestlers in combat, a colorfully dressed horseman, the plumes of his hat and the horse's mane and tail flying in the breeze, and hooves kicking up the dust.

I won't spoil the drama of the competition itself -- suffice to say that Pena earns the recognition he receives. The Tuvans' infectious love of their idiosyncratic culture is rivaled only by their generous embrace of a brother from another planet.

Also noteworthy is the companion CD, Ghengis Blues (TuvaMuch Records), with Ondar and Pena. For the unalloyed Tuvan experience, you can't go wrong with the naturalistic field recordings found on Smithsonian Folkways' recent release Tuva, Among the Spirits. But Ondar and Pena make Tuvan music accessible to a wider audience, inserting bluesy guitar riffs into a cantering Tuvan folksong and earth-rumbling throatsinging into blues and even a Cape Verdean song. The entire Genghis Blues phenomenon is enough to restore a world-music cynic's faith. In the face of so many contrived global-music projects, here's one graced by mystery, vitality, and inspiration that can come only from real life.


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