Paul Pena played blues with the greats T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Bonnie Raitt. In 1995, the blind bluesman became the first American ever to compete in an unusual contest of multi-harmonic “throatsinging.”
The Autonomous Republic of Tuva, wedged between Siberia and Mongolia, for centuries has been isolated from the rest of the world by jagged mountains and Soviet restrictions. Only recently have the Tuvan art form of throatsinging become known to outsiders.
Pena discovered Tuvan throatsinging on a shortwave program of Radio Moscow twelve years ago. Multiple voices emanated from a single vocalist and the sounds gripped him like nothing he had ever heard. For the next nine years he worked to produce similar overtones with his own voice and to incorporate throatsinging into his blues music.
Unexpectedly in 1993, Pena discovered that Tuvan throatsingers were on their first concert tour of the U.S.. After their performance, the deep-voiced bluesman broke into his own self-taught style of throatsinging and serenaded the musicians with Tuvan traditional songs! The throatsingers were amazed by Pena’s mastery of the Tuvan art form and likened his rich voice to the sounds of tremors in the earth. They insisted that “Chershemjer” (Earthquake) travel to Tuva for the next tri-ennial throatsinging contest which would be held in 1995.
Eleven years after he first heard throat singing, Paul Pena entered the National Theatre of Tuva to make history. The blind bluseman’s performance was so well received, he became the 1995 throatsinging champion in the style of kargyraa. He also captured the “audience favorite” award for the week-long competition. The Tuvan people had never seen or heard anyone like him.
Pena was honored by the Tuvan people, not only because he mastered kargyraa, but he also learned to speak their language. His friendship flourished with Kongar-ol Ondar, the throatsinging champion who had invited Pena three years earlier. Ondar hosted Pena as the bluesman experienced the country he once believed he would never visit.
“Genghis Blues” is a film about exploration and friendship. It is the story of a man whose struggle in life is not defined by conformity and rules but by an unquenchable curiosity, and love of music. Pena’s story is truly an inspiration to all.