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Blind U.S. bluesman masters throat-singing of Tuva
SAN FRANCISCO, July 16 (Reuters) - It is a long way from the soulful wail of American blues to bone-jangling Central Asian throat-singing. But Paul Pena has made the journey, an astounding 11-year odyssey across two wildly different musical traditions devoted to the universal human experience.
The former sideman to blues greats such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker has become one of the few Western masters of the throat-song of Tuva. An award-winning documentary on his feat, "Genghis Blues," is headed for U.S. cinemas.
It all started on a night in 1984 when the blind San Francisco guitarist, who wrote the 1970s Steve Miller Band hit "Jet Airliner," was fiddling with a short-wave radio. Through the static, he suddenly tuned in a station broadcasting Tuvan throat-singing -- traditional music performed only in a remote region sandwiched between Siberia and Mongolia.
"The music was so strange I thought my radio was broken," said Pena, now 49. "The only thing was, it played a melody."
Pena was hooked on multi-harmonic vocal music that allows a singer to hit up to four notes at the same time to produce a reverberating growl that sounds like a frog with something caught in its throat. He recorded the sounds coming from the radio, then spent the next seven years trying to mimic them, until he came across a compact disc of Tuvan singing.
This fascination led him on a journey that culminated in a trip to Tuva, a tiny autonomous Russian republic of some 300,000 people, to compete in the national throat-singing competition in 1995. That experience is the subject of "Genghis Blues," which just opened in San Francisco and is set to premiere this month in other cities in the United States.
It has also brought new attention to Pena, who never achieved commercial success despite widespread recognition of his blues artistry. The taste of fame comes as he faces perhaps the toughest challenge of his life: he has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.
"I always thought of the film as, finally Paul would get some recognition, even if the film never made it past the cable access TV," said Roko Belic, 27, who wrote, shot and directed the film with the help of his brother Adrian.
"At least I could spread the word about this amazing guy that I met," he told Reuters in an interview. "The fact that it's getting theatrical and television release, that's about all of our dreams coming true."
FEELING MUSIC THROUGH HIS FINGERS
Belic, long fascinated with Tuva, was looking to shoot a documentary film when he heard about Pena from a fellow Californian who was trying to organise the musician's trip to the Tuvan competition. "He was a really cool guy and 45 minutes later we got off the phone and he said maybe we could shoot a film about Paul," Belic said.
Pena was sceptical.
He had spent years teaching himself throat-singing and the Tuvan language by translating each letter from Tuvan to Russian and then into English using an electronic device that scans letters, then raises a series of pins to shape the letter. It was an excruciatingly time-consuming process, sometimes taking up to one week just to translate a single word.
But the long hours paid off in 1993 when a group of Tuvan singers came to the San Francisco Bay Area. After the concert, Pena broke into a self-taught Tuvan song as champion throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar walked through the hallway.
Ondar was so impressed he invited the bluesman to the triennial throat-singing competition. But actually making the trip seemed like a pipe dream to Pena at the time.
"There was no way I thought this country boy was going to Russia," Pena told Reuters. "Getting over there was a big deal in faith and belief."
SINGING THE TUVAN BLUES
Eventually Pena and the Belics scraped together enough money and in 1995 they headed for Tuva, lugging musical instruments and film equipment but unsure what they would find. "I knew that, no matter what happened, as long as we had a video camera we would get something," Belic said.
The 88-minute film documents the entire journey, warts and all. At times, Pena lashed out at those around him, especially when his blindness amplified obstacles that sighted people often take for granted.
On the first night of the competition in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl, Pena was told he could not perform the song he had prepared because its composer was dishonoured and in jail. Visibly shaken, he collected himself and went on stage at the National Theatre in front of some 2,000 people to perform a hastily improvised song instead.
As the bluesy sound of his steel guitar combined with the deep growl of his throat song, the crowd went wild with delight. "That's where I think I felt stage fright for the first time," said Pena, who went on to win the audience favourite award and the championship in the "kargyraa" style.
For his win Pena received a Tuvan instrument called a dosh-poluur, similar to a banjo but with only three strings, and a traditional outfit.
The film also shows how readily the Tuvans, Asian descendants of Genghis Khan, accepted the large American with wild, curly hair -- a far cry from America, where Pena, whose parents came from the Cape Verde Islands, is often judged on the colour of his skin and his blindness.
The group spent five weeks in Tuva shooting the film, which was financed on a shoe-string budget and won the audience award for best documentary at the prestigious Sundance film festival.
The filmmakers and the musician also forged a close bond during the trip. As the film gains notice and offers begin to stream in, Belic is quick to deflect praise back to Pena, who is deep into the struggle with cancer.
Even though the illness has weakened Pena's body and sapped his energy, he still appeared at the recent San Francisco premiere of the documentary for a surprise first-hand demonstration of the strange folk music.
"I'm busier than I've been in a long time," Pena said.
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