"Genghis Blues" next in Historical Museum film series
Blind American bluesman learns Tuvan throat singing, wins competition

For immediate release January 25, 2008

 

Contact: Jeff Morgan, Jeff.Morgan@iowa.gov, (515) 281-3858

(DES MOINES) – The State Historical Museum’s “Movies at the Museum” film series continues in February with “Genghis Blues,” a documentary about a blind bluesman who became the first American to compete in a Tuvan “throat singing” contest.

“Genghis Blues” will be shown at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 and 2 p.m. Feb. 9 at the State Historical Building, 600 E. Locust Street in Des Moines. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at Iowatix.com and at the door. Moviegoers who purchase a ticket at the door and bring a non-perishable food item for the Food Bank of Iowa will receive a $1 discount. State employees who present an identification badge when purchasing tickets at the door may receive a $1 discount when purchasing a ticket at the door. More information is available at www.culturalaffairs.org or 515-281-5111.

Nominated for an Academy Award (Best Documentary) and winner of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in 1999, “Genghis Blues” is the story of Paul Pena’s discovery and mastery of “throat singing.”

Pena, a Creole-American born in 1950 in Massachusetts, was the son of immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa.

Growing up with congenital glaucoma, he learned to sing and play a variety of instruments, blending Mississippi Delta blues, Cape Verdian folk and, later, Tuvan throat singing during a career that spanned five decades.

In 1969, Pena played the Newport Folk Festival with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson. He also played with many of America’s legendary blues musicians, including John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, “Big Bones,” and T. Bone Walker. His song, “Jet Airliner,” recorded by the Steve Miller Band, was a hit in the 1970s.

In 1984, Pena discovered throat singing while listening to a shortwave broadcast of Radio Moscow. Throat singing is an arcane vocal technique that emanated from Central Asia. It is performed by a single vocalist who produces two or three distinct tones simultaneously.

One tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch, similar to the drone of a bagpipe. The second and third tones are a series of flutelike harmonics that resonate high above the drone and often represent sounds found in nature, such as the whistle of a bird or the syncopated rhythms of a mountain stream.

Pena worked on the singing technique for nine years, until 1993, when he learned that throat singers from the Republic of Tuva were on their first concert tour of the United States. Tuva is an autonomous republic of Russia bordered by Siberia and Mongolia.

After hearing the performance, Pena serenaded the Tuvans with his own self-taught style of throat singing. The Tuvans, impressed with his abilities, affectionately called him “Chershemjer” (Earthquake) and insisted he travel to Tuva for the next throat singing contest in 1995.

Eleven years after he first heard throat singing, Pena entered the National Theatre of Tuva to compete in the contest. His performance was so well received he was named the throat singing champion in the style of kargyraa. He also captured the “audience favorite” award for the week-long competition.

Pena died in October 2005 from complications of diabetes and pancreatitis. He was 55. His obituary appeared in numerous publications, including TIME and Rolling Stone magazines.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is responsible for developing the state’s interest in the areas of the arts, history and other cultural matters with the advice and assistance from its two divisions: the State Historical Society of Iowa and the Iowa Arts Council. DCA preserves, researches, interprets and promotes an awareness and understanding of local, state and regional history and stimulates and encourages the study and presentation of the performing and fine arts and public interest and participation in them. It implements tourism-related art and history projects as directed by the General Assembly and designs a comprehensive, statewide, long-range plan with the assistance of the Iowa Arts Council to develop the arts in Iowa. More information about DCA is available at www.culturalaffairs.org.

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