Smack dab in the center of Asia is a tiny nation called Tuva, an ancient Siberian republic so obscure (at least from our ethnocentric perspective) that no dictionary exists to translate its language into English. This little place has given birth to a tremendous vocal tradition known as khoomei, or throat-singing, a startling technique in which a singer can voice up to four distinct notes simultaneously. This faraway country has recently garnered worldwide attention thanks to this unique musical custom and a man the Tuvans came to call "Earthquake."
Try to imagine, if you can, a blind San Franciscan blues singer accidentally stumbling on a shortwave radio broadcast from Tuva. He practices throat-singing on his own for years, finally mastering the technique and creating a husky mixture of khoomei and soulful blues. Picture him meeting some Tuvan musicians on tour in the U.S. who invite him back to their country, where he wins a national throat-singing competition. For a final improbability, have the entire musical adventure filmed by a pair of twentysomething brothers from Vallejo, Roko and Adrian Belic, who end up winning the audience award for best documentary of 1999 at the Sundance Film Festival.
If you've already heard of American blues singer Paul Pena or the film Genghis Blues, you know that this stranger-than-Hollywood plot is all true. Adding to the drama of Pena's life is the recent release of his R&B album New Train, a masterpiece that took over 27 years to be heard, and which includes his hit "Jet Airliner" (made famous by Steve Miller) and a session with the late Jerry Garcia.
Pena's co-star in Genghis Blues is Kongar-ol Ondar, an extraordinary Tuvan musician. Pena and Ondar recently gave a series of joint concerts in San Francisco to mark the November release of the film's soundtrack as a CD. Starting this month, Genghis Blues is available on video and DVD, and the film returns to the big screen this week. At long last, something for Pena to sing about.