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Paul Pena (January 26, 1950 - ) is a San Francisco blues musician, who has recently become famous for teaching himself Tyvan throat singing, and is the subject of the recent award-winning documentary film Genghis Blues about his journey to Tyva in 1995.

The Man

Pena was born in Hyannis, Massachussetts, in the United States, and his grandparents were immigrants from Cape Verde. He has been blind since birth because of congenital glaucoma, and attended schools for the blind until he entered Clark University in 1967. He showed an aptitude for music from a young age, beginning with the piano and voice, and soon graduating to guitar, bass, violin, and trumpet. He played jazz with his father, as well as music from Cape Verde, and played in clubs in and around his college. In 1969 he played the Newport Folk Festival, and his professional career took off. He moved to the bay area in 1971, and cut his first record in 1973. In fact, he cut two -- Paul Pena released by Capitol, and New Train which wasn't released until late in 2000. New Train features a bunch of guest musicians including Jerry Garcia and Merle Saunders, and the a cappella singing group The Persuasions.

Pena made a name for himself as a studio musician with many blues greats, like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. He is also an excellent songwriter, and penned Jet Airliner, made famous by The Steve Miller Band. Miller heard about Pena from producer Ben Sidran, who had worked with Pena a few months earlier. Miller covered Jet Airliner, and the royalties from it have given Pena a modest amount of financial security since then.

In 1984, Pena heard throat singing for the first time, on a shortwave radio broadcast by Radio Moscow, and sought out more of this style of music for many years. In 1991 he obtained a recording of throat singing, and learned the Kargyraa style, in which the normal voice is supplemented by very low tones (as opposed to higher harmonic overtones). Eventually, his already low voice and ability to sing Kargyraa earned him the nickname "Earthquake."

Pena met the Tyvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar in 1993 after a San Francisco concert sponsored by Ralph Leighton's Friends of Tuva, and the two began a friendship and musical collaboration. This resulted in an invitation for Pena to visit the Tyvan Republic and participate in the Tyvan national throat singing competition in 1995. He won both the Kargyraa division, and the "audience favorite" award. His (difficult) journey to and from Tyva was documented in the film Genghis Blues, which won several international film awards including the Sundance Audience Favorite, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. Since then, Pena has continued performing and recording both Tyvan music and blues (and more often, a synthesis of the two) here in the United States. He was even honored by the city of San Francisco, which named July 11, 1999 as "Paul Pena Day."

While Pena makes fantastic music, his life in recent years has been very difficult. He lost his wife in 1991 to complications due to kidney failure, and he has recently come down with pancreatitis, causing him to lose a significant amount of weight and run up thousands of dollars in medical bills. He has also suffered from depression for many years. In fact, during the filming of Genghis Blues, he lost his medication (or had it stolen) in Tyva, and nearly had to cut his trip short. As a blind person and as a musician outside the mainstream, he says he also feels very alienated living in the United States. However, he still performs publicly, even while suffering from pancreatitis.

The music

I first heard Paul Pena on the disc Deep in the Heart of Tuva: Cowboy Music from the Wild East, which first highlighted his trip to the Tyvan throat singing competition. This disc is a compilation of many different throat singers and singing styles. It begins with very traditional pieces by Tyvan artists, then presents a few recordings from the Soviet era, and finally showcases some of the new directions the music is taking, including Pena's work. It only has two songs by Pena, but is an interesting disc nonetheless. The CD comes in a jewel-box sized book, giving a very broad overview of Tyvan life and culture.

Very recently, I heard New Train and saw Genghis Blues for the first time. New Train is a great, great album. I first heard my father playing it last week, and thought it was a Jimi Hendrix album I'd never heard before. It's straightforward blues-rock typical of the 1960's and 1970's, but it's very well done. Pena's voice and songwriting style is very similar to Hendrix at times, particularly on the songs "Wait on what you want" and "Cosmic Mirror," though he's more centered on good songwriting than radical guitar playing. His singing and songwriting is also similar to Richie Havens at times, particularly on the song "Indian Boy." The album also has Pena's original version of "Jet Airliner," which is a lot like Steve Miller's cover, but with a slower tempo. It amazes me that this album sat unreleased for 27 years, but I'm glad it finally came out.

Genghis Blues is also an interesting record, but for a very different reason. This record (and the film) documents Pena's trip to Kyzyl, Tyva, for the throat singing competition, as well as giving an overview of his musical career. The record features work mainly by Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar, both on traditional Tyvan pieces and on songs which combine Tyvan traditions and American blues. The majority of the songs on the album are Tyvan, but it has a few other gems, including "Gonna Move" from New Train, a Cape Verdian song called "Tras D'Oriz√£o," and a few blues songs in English, including "What You Talkin' About" from Deep In The Heart of Tuva, and the lovely "Center of Asia." The album ends with a live version of "Eki A'ttar (Good Horses)" which morphs into a bluegrass tune with Paul joking about cowboys and hillbillies. Both New Train and Genghis Blues are great albums, and worth picking up -- the former for good Rock and Roll, and latter for a taste of Tyvan music.

Sources: Liner notes for New Train, Hybrid Recordings, 2000
The film and soundtrack for Genghis Blues, Six Degrees Records, 2000

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