Getting the Genghis blues
by Banning Eyre
GENGHIS BLUES, Written and directed by Roko Belic. Produced and shot by Roko and Adrian
Belic. With Paul Pena, Kongar-ol Ondar, and Mario Cassetta. A Roxie Releasing
film. At the Brattle, August 27 through September 2.
It's the stuff of moviemaking legend. Semi-pro filmmakers with limited funds
and semi-pro gear cobble together a film whose story and setting are so
irresistible and well-realized that moviegoers leave the theater raving. I'm
not talking about the witch in the Maryland woods. I'm talking about a blind
San Francisco blues man who throatsings his way into the hearts of two million
Tuvans in the steppes of Central Asia. The film is called Genghis Blues,
and though it's every bit as unlikely as the Blair Witch phenomenon, for
my money, it's far more rewarding.
At the center of this campfire story, which won the Audience Award at this
year's Sundance Festival, is the peculiarly Tuvan art of throatsinging, which
involves isolating overtones of the human voice so that a single singer can
produce layers of sound -- from a deep growl to a eerily soaring, melodic
whistle. Throatsinging has become a world-music fad rivaled only by the
didgeridoo. This decade has seen Tuvan singers tour the globe and record with
collaborators as diverse as Bulgarian women's choirs and the late Frank Zappa.
So it isn't surprising that Paul Pena, a veteran blues singer/guitarist of Cape
Verdean ancestry, would have heard the sound. Pena has played with blues
artists from John Lee Hooker to Bonnie Raitt, and he composed Steve Miller's
hit "Jet Airliner." But when he came across a Tuvan song while monitoring Radio
Moscow on his shortwave, something happened. Not only did he love this
unearthly sound, but he found that he could replicate it.
Pena began collecting Tuvan recordings and learning to sing traditional songs.
He even incorporated Tuvan vocal techniques into his blues act. Then, as the
film reveals early on, an eccentric outfit called Friends of Tuva brought
throatsinging legend Kongar-ol Ondar to San Francisco, whereupon the beefy Pena
approached Ondar in the theater lobby and held forth with the sound that would
soon earn him the epithet "Earthquake." Right on the spot, the astounded Ondar
invited Pena to come to Tuva and compete in an annual throatsinging
competition. In the film, Ralph Leighton, a Friends of Tuva co-founder, says,
"I thought that was crazy enough to qualify for a Friends of Tuva project."
The sponsors assembled a suitably gonzo team for the expedition, including a
grizzled, beatnik DJ (Mario Cassetta) and two amateur documentarians from
Chicago (brothers Roko and Adrian Belic). The cross-cultural antics that unfold
once this crew touches down in remote Tuva -- now a neglected province of
Russia -- are by turns hilarious, awkward, harrowing, and touching. But the
success of Genghis Blues reflects more than the film's zany exoticism.
The Belic brothers prove adept at telling a complicated story briskly and
vividly. They use recurrent images to great effect -- Pena's cane scanning the
San Francisco sidewalk as he walks, his fingers scanning Braille as he labors
to translate Tuvan into Russian and then English, birds of prey circling in the
azure, Tuvan sky.
The Belics work in fascinating archival footage of Tuva, and of Ondar when he
was a Tuvan folk prodigy. In between the two nights when Pena performs at the
competition, the team takes a staggeringly beautiful tour of the rugged
province. Pena's folksy bluntness is always refreshing. "You're a devil," he
tells Ondar when the Tuvan insists he bathe himself in the icy waters of the
Chadaana River. There's something poignant about going to such effort to expose
a blind man to the beauties of nature. So when Pena complains, "They could do
all this shit without me," it hits home. "Most people get 95 percent of their
information through their eyes," Pena points out, without a trace of
sentimentality. "That puts me decidedly in the deviant category among human
beings." As a heartbreaking Tuvan lament plays, we see sloping blue mountains
over green fields, traditional wrestlers in combat, a colorfully dressed
horseman, the plumes of his hat and the horse's mane and tail flying in the
breeze, and hooves kicking up the dust.
I won't spoil the drama of the competition itself -- suffice to say that Pena
earns the recognition he receives. The Tuvans' infectious love of their
idiosyncratic culture is rivaled only by their generous embrace of a brother
from another planet.
Also noteworthy is the companion CD, Ghengis Blues (TuvaMuch Records),
with Ondar and Pena. For the unalloyed Tuvan experience, you can't go wrong
with the naturalistic field recordings found on Smithsonian Folkways' recent
release Tuva, Among the Spirits. But Ondar and Pena make Tuvan music
accessible to a wider audience, inserting bluesy guitar riffs into a cantering
Tuvan folksong and earth-rumbling throatsinging into blues and even a Cape
Verdean song. The entire Genghis Blues phenomenon is enough to restore a
world-music cynic's faith. In the face of so many contrived global-music
projects, here's one graced by mystery, vitality, and inspiration that can come
only from real life.