Hippies, yuppies, and cultural thrill-seekers line up outside the Asian Art Museum on the off chance that an additional performance of “Chinggis Blues,” the collaboration of local bluesman Paul Pena and Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ool Ondar will be added. (One is.) Filing into their seats, the crowd takes its place in the museum's theater, speaking in hushed tones as a museum official approaches the podium.
“We feel very fortunate to be able to welcome Paul Pena and Kongar-ool Ondar to the Asian Arts Museum. Please feel free to take a look at our rare exhibition of Mongolian art after the show.”
Programs rustle. A young man leads the blind Pena to his seat on the stage and places a steel guitar in his lap. Pena strums a few chords, punctuating each sentence of his intro.
He explains his roots, his enchantment with the rough throaty quality of blues greats Howlin' Wolf and Charlie Patton. As proof, he slides into a Robert Johnson number with the kind of ease and mastery that could bring a tear to the hardened eye.
“The first time I picked up Tuvan throat-singing on my shortwave, I thought my radio was broken” — a strange unearthly humming emanates from the wings — “but diodes don't break in harmony.”
Pena continues: “I met Kongar in '93 when he came to San Francisco with the Tuvan Ensemble. We became friends, and, ultimately, he became my teacher.”
The source of the humming — Kongar-ool Ondar — steps on stage, clothed in exquisite native attire only paled by his huge, toothy grin.
“He is the reigning world champion of sygyt throat-singing,” says Pena.
An eerie sound resonates through the room as Ondar opens his mouth to demonstrate.
“American music and Tuvan music are very similar in some ways,” says Pena. “We compare all that is good to our cars, while they compare all that is good to their horses.”
Ondar pantomimes riding a horse, striking his boots with the small horsewhip attached to his wrist. “In the end, it all has something to do with the ride.” The crowd laughs loudly and openly.
Equally comfortable on slide guitar and Tuvan banjo, Pena accompanies Ondar as the Tuvan master displays his craft.
The Earthquake, or Chershimjer as Ondar refers to Pena, moves his deep, grumbling blues vocalizations into more exotic territory. Astounding reverberations texture the air as Pena blends his kargyraa, a subharmonic, growling style of Tuvan throat-singing, with Ondar's more ethereal sygyt style. Even though the instrumental rhythms are still recognizably blues in origin, the goulash of sounds and ethnicities defies definition.
The pair receive two standing ovations and heartfelt hoots of approval from the mesmerized crowd.
After the show, I approach Ondar's translators to verify a spelling. Introductions are made. The ruddy Tuvan, already stripped of his ceremonial dress, grasps my hand warmly and smiles at me with twinkling eyes. Nervously, I return the salutation and attempt to show that I am moved by sputtering, “Wonderful, really.” He beams and speaks to his translator, Roko Belic.
“He wants to go to Bondage a Go-Go,” explains Belic.
I attempt some semblance of cool. “Uh — OK. Well — umm. Give me a contact number and I'll try to set something up.”
It's not everyday you get to take the Elvis of Tuva to a fetish club.
In an attempt to “mix it up,” Cafe Du Nord, usually known for jazz and “smoky bar music,” now plays host to “downhear,” an experimental lounge series held on Wednesdays.
The theme ranges from hip hop to psychedelic, jazz to country. This week the night is celebrating, as host BPM/O puts it, “an aspect of our society that embraces L.A., the Beach Boys, Hawaiian shirts, and surfing.”
Jaguars, a local surf band, have the stage. A bare-chested male go-go dancer takes the floor and begins to gyrate. He is quickly matched by a woman, clad only in a sarong and a black bra. They glisten with sweat. Patrons draped in Hawaiian shirts and plastic leis join in with their versions of the hula/swim/jerk.
At the bar, customers skillfully maneuver through umbrellas, maraschino cherries, and pineapple wedges to get to the alcohol in their glasses.
A drag queen pulls lush-ously at her Blue Hawaiian as two ravers next to her finger their leis.
“It's all just such delicious fun,” she croons to the floral-clad bartender.
“See, given the chance, and the right environment, people will try something different,” BPM/O states with some satisfaction. “They might even like it, and if they don't — hey, admission is only two bucks, less than the price of a beer.”
The “downhear” concept came to BPM/O after over 10 years of spinning in local clubs.
“The music scene has become ghettoized,” he expresses with genuine concern. “There is a great separation between who will go to what club, be seen with whom, and listen to what kind of music. The rockers go to rock clubs, the ravers go to raves, people that like acid jazz only go to acid-jazz clubs. I play all sorts of music. I appreciate all kinds of music, and I know that there are others out there that don't fit in to any one particular clique but also have an overall appreciation. 'downhear' is for them.”
By Silke Tudor