Paul Pena is unlike anyone you’ve ever known. The son of West African immigrants, he’s living in San Francisco, a blind and brilliant Mississippi Delta blues and Cape Verde folk singer whose resume includes work with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King. The Academy Award-nominated Genghis Blues documents his 1995 journey to Tuva, a small Asian republic north of Mongolia, a journey that he had dreamed of making for years before he was finally able to do so.
If you have never heard of Tuva, that’s not surprising. Pena himself had not heard of it before one night in 1984, when he came across some Tuvan throatsinging on his shortwave radio. The traditional art of throatsinging, or khoomei, involves the ability to create two or more sounds in the throat at once, and in Tuva, it is a national passion, such that its practitioners are revered as rock stars are elsewhere. Pena’s attraction to the sound he heard that night was immediate and intense: he began researching the music and the place that produced it. He taught himself the Tuvans’ obscure language, in Braille, working from an English to Russian dictionary and then one that translated Russian to Tuvan (as there are none that directly translate English to Tuvan), and eventually, he learned to throatsing himself, soon able to make such an impressively thunderous noise that he was dubbed “Earthquake” by one of his teachers, a throatsinging master named Kongar-ol Ondar, winner of the first throatsinging competition in 1992.
Pena met Kongar-ol when the Tuvan star whom the film’s narrator describes as “a combination of John F. Kennedy, Elvis, and Michael Jordan” and a couple of other singers came to San Francisco in 1993: Pena tracked them down after their concert and demonstrated his own self-taught version of throatsinging. Touched by Pena’s dedication and pretty much astonished by his skill, Ondar invited him to Tuva for the second competition and symposium in 1995. This was the beginning of a long and trying and eventually tremendously rewarding trip, for Pena and others with varying interests in Tuva. This cast of characters includes associates of the physicist Richard Feynman (whose own desire to get to Tuva never came to fruition, but was chronicled in Ralph Leighton’s book Tuva or Bust, Leighton being this film’s associate producer, and the fellow who provided the Belic brothers with the original idea), Pena’s assistant Tony DiCicca, Lemon DeGeorge (termed in the film, “tree trimmer, recording engineer, filmmaker, rock musician”), and the film crew headed up by brothers Roko and Adrian Belic.
The film is remarkable, and not only for the remarkable story it tells, concerning the unlikely friendship between the apparently always-smiling Ondar and the large-bodied, melancholy Pena (he’s given to bouts of weeping when overwhelmed by the day-to-day details of his difficult life, a painful fact from which the film does not shy away). In Tuva, the group soon finds that “there is no life as usual.” They experience numerous adventures, from celebratory parades and festal meals (their hosts kill sheep for them), to torrential rains and one traveler’s heart attack. At one point Paul loses his anti-depressant medication, and fears he will lapse into a debilitating depression: the filmmakers begin to wonder if their run of bad luck is the result of a curse they’ve inadvertently picked up, with a traditional drum they’ve purchased to take home. They take the drum to a shaman, to find out if it’s got a demon’s tail hidden in it, and are relieved to find that it does not, that their bad luck is just that, not hexed, but random.
“Life is very spontaneous,” observes Paul, with “opportunities that present themselves and you have to be ready.” Just so, the filmmakers shot more than fifty hours of tape in Tuva, ready to capture whatever they saw happening around them. The film’s emotional highlights are structured as part of an ongoing trajectory, the movement of Paul and Kongar-ol’s developing relationship, as well as Paul’s reception by the Tuvans, so pleased to hear him sing (on stage, he combines blues and throatsinging in a fabulous, truly moving way) and to speak their language.
Pena’s own story begins before and continues beyond the trip, however. All too used to facing racism and prejudices against disabled people in the States, he’s both thrilled and awed by the adulation he receives in Tuva, perhaps best illustrated by Ondar’s genuine affections and tender respect (he washes Paul in the sacred waters of a Tuvan river). The film focuses on Pena’s efforts to adapt to circumstances that change by the minute: walking through fields and negotiating rugged terrains, riding a horse, singing in a language not his own. Courageous, honest, resilient, and as flawed as any human, Paul Pena is one of the more incredible people you’ll see on a screen.