‘Genghis Blues’: A Song for the Heart

By David Segal, Washington Post, Friday 21 April 2000; Page C01

Fiddling with a shortwave radio one night, bluesman Paul Pena happened across a Moscow station and heard something freaky. A vocalist from Tuva—a verdant, archaic and formerly independent nation-state in southern Siberia—was singing two notes at the same time, producing the sound you'd expect if a set of Scottish bagpipes could chant like a Gregorian monk.

Pena soon mastered the art of throat-singing, as the technique is known, and painstakingly acquired a working knowledge of the Tuvan language. Within a few years, he had wangled an invitation to travel halfway across the planet and join Tuva's national throat-singing competition.

Genghis Blues, an Oscar-nominated documentary, is the tale of that improbable journey—and much more. What starts as a somewhat larky jaunt with a couple of young cameramen quickly turns into, of all things, a love story. The people of Tuva, mostly farmers and sheepherders, swoon for Pena once they get past the joyful shock of beholding a blind American belting out tunes Tuvan-style. And Pena, whose career in the United States never quite soared, bonds so thoroughly with Tuva that he considers staying there.

Watching this affair unfold is surprising, occasionally wrenching, sometimes hilarious and always affecting. Tuva and Pena share not just a passion for the same music, but a history of struggle that renders them a near-perfect match.

Early in his life, Pena toured and played guitar with such masters as B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, but he recorded just one (unnoticed) album in 1972, and his single claim to fame is writing Jet Airliner, which the Steve Miller Band recorded and turned into a massive hit. By 1995, Pena's wife had died, muggers treated him like an ATM, and he had a very serious case of the blues.

The Tuvans, meanwhile, were just emerging from a losing streak of their own. Sandwiched between Mongolia and Russia, they were under the thumb of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it nearly crushed any remnants of their cultural history.

To Westerners, the place might have been nothing more than a quirky National Geographic piece were it not for Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. As the film explains, Feynman was an avid stamp collector, and in the 1920s Tuva issued some pretty exotic stamps.

Bewitched by the name—especially its need-to-buy-a-vowel capital, Kyzyl—Feynman and a friend lobbed a letter into Tuva and waited to see if anything came back. A year and a half later, out popped a reply. Feynman and Ralph Leighton would later visit the place, just because it was there and very far away. Leighton recounted the journey in Tuva or Bust.

Without Feynman, Genghis Blues might not exist. The trip gave rise to an organization called the Friends of Tuva, which brought Tuva's most beloved throat-singers to this country. Pena, by then beguiled by all things Tuvan, ambushed them at the show and demonstrated his own growing prowess. Flabbergasted, they invited Pena to the triennial competition.

The bulk of Genghis Blues takes place in Tuva, where Pena is dubbed Earthquake because of his booming voice and is feted with a slaughtered sheep. (He gets the guest-of-honor portion: the butt.) Disoriented and awed by his reception, Pena is ferried around the countryside, but his time onstage is when he—and this movie—come fully alive. Blending and improvising as he goes along, Pena throat-sings the blues to the ecstatic ovations that long eluded him in the United States. The ensuing moments of discovery and connection are rapturous and powerful.

Like any good love story, this one gets complicated, and the complications are often painful to watch. First-time director Roko Belic gives the movie a rough-hewn, homemade feel—not by choice, one presumes—that rarely comes off as amateurish. Mostly, Belic has the sense to stay out of the way and roll tape as Pena and Tuva discover each other. Together, they demonstrate a timeless truth: that music is a language that, at its best, can transcend race, culture, time and even the distance of a few thousand miles.

Genghis Blues (88 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cinema Arts Theatre) contains some profanity. Portions of the film are in Russian and Tuvan with English subtitles.