Paul Pena RIP


Sad news: just heard that the 'star' of one of my favorite movies, Genghis Blues has died this week. Paul Pena -- star of 1999 documentary 'Genghis Blues'

Paul Pena, a San Francisco blues artist who mastered the arcane art of Tuvan throat singing, died Saturday from complications of diabetes and pancreatitis. He was 55.

Many people are familiar with Mr. Pena because of the 1999 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Genghis Blues,” which tells the story of how he took up throat singing, culminating with an eventful trip to the Central Asian country Tuva, where he won awards in a throat singing competition.

But millions more are acquainted with his work without even knowing it because he wrote the song “Jet Airliner,” which was a Top 10 hit for the Steve Miller Band in 1977.

If you haven't had the pleasure of watching Genghis Blues, I highly recommend it. The soundtrack is quite good too.

Genghis Blues

“Genghis Blues” (Original Soundtrack)

Genghis Blues

“Genghis Blues” (Roko Belic)

The movie is a happy marriage of blues music, ethnomusicality, politics, geography, anthropology, and eccentric characters. Rest in Peace, Mr. Pena.

The only other album by Mr. Pena is this one:

New Train

“New Train” (Paul Pena)

which is a sort of smooth, bluesy, album, mixture of early 70's R&B (of the Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder school), and some Hendrix-inspired blues. Good as well.

More from the SF Chronicle obit:

Mr. Pena was born to a family of Cape Verdean background in Hyannis, Mass. He proved to be a natural musician, singing and teaching himself several instruments. In the late '60s, he was in a band that opened for big-time acts including the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa. Blues artists ranging from T-Bone Walker to B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt recognized his talents, hiring him to play guitar in their bands.
“He's like having my very own Jimi Hendrix,” Raitt once said. “There's simply nothing he can't play well.”
In 1971, Mr. Pena moved to San Francisco, where he played many gigs, frequently opening for Jerry Garcia's and Merle Saunders' bands.
His career was on a positive arc when he released an album, “Paul Pena,” in 1972. But things took a bad turn when he recorded a follow-up, “New Train,” the next year. Mr. Pena got caught up in a dispute with volatile label owner Albert Grossman, best known for managing Bob Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin and others. Grossman refused to release “New Train.”

“That just broke Paul's heart,” said Seth Augustus, a musician who studied throat singing with Mr. Pena and helped care for him over the past several years.

The album did finally come out in 2000 -- by which time Mr. Pena was reeling from the shocks of experiencing the release of “Genghis Blues” and getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Told he had only a few months to live, Mr. Pena began a course of chemotherapy. Shortly after, however, his doctors said they made a mistake: It was pancreatitis, not cancer after all.

Mr. Pena became interested in throat singing when he heard a Tuvan broadcast on his shortwave radio in 1984. Later he got ahold of a Tuvan record, playing it countless times until he learned how to throat sing, which involves producing several distinct vocal-cord sounds simultaneously. In 1993, attending a throat singing performance at the Asian Art Museum, he demonstrated his own technique to Kongar-ol Ondar, one of the foremost throat singers in the world. Ondar was mightily impressed with Mr. Pena, nicknaming him “Earthquake” and inviting him to come to Tuva to participate in the annual competition.
His 1995 journey to Tuva -- where he won the contest in two categories and charmed locals who were delighted with this foreigner who mastered their art form -- is recounted in “Genghis Blues.”

More at Mr. Pena's website

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That's sad about Paul. Ghengis Blues was a great film, but it's too bad that the publicity came so late in his life.

Are you a fan of Huun Huur Tu or Yat Kha, or other throat singing bands?

I've never heard of Huun Huur Tu, I'll have to check it out. I also have an album by Ondar (Paul Pena's friend in Genghis Blues) that I like.

Such an odd style, instantly recognizable, yet very hard to sing along to....

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