Genghis Blues

Genghis Blues

Directed by Adrian Belic

Staring Paul Pena, Kongar-ol Odner

Not Rated/Documentary USA 1999

When bluesman Paul Pena’s wife dies, the search for solace expands his musical horizons, and he becomes a master of Tuvan Throat Singing. Throat singing is the highest cultural achievement of an isolated Turkic people trapped in Central Asia’s most obscure country, Tana Tuva. Pena taught himself the technique of singing two or more notes simultaneously, which sounds eerily like a concerto for leaf blowers. This film documents his travel to the 1995 Tuvan Throat Singing Competition and Symposia in Kyzyl, Tuva’s capital.

Pena and his friends’ wild adventure carries them into the heart of the crumbling Soviet empire, where getting an airline ticket depends more on who you know than where you want to go. Nicknamed “Earthquake” by his hosts, Pena’s skills at throat singing and blues riffs vault him to audience favorite in the Kargyraa category of Throat Singing. Taking some time to tour the country, the group visits some of the most isolated land on earth, highlighted with the monument inscribed “Center of Asia.” This is an empty land, and the only souvenir they find is a large Shaman’s drum. Unfortunately, it seems to carry a curse and brings widespread grief to the party until they get the curse lifted by a competing Shaman. Good thing they brought along a 5 gallon can of fermented mare’s milk to keep them rolling through the rough spots.

Shot with hand-held video cameras, Genghis Blues captures a spontaneous adventure, ebbing and flowing with the opportunities and adversities the crew finds. More than a travelogue or a cultural document, it shows how a common interest can bridge two immensely different worlds, alien as they are to one another. The sheer oddity of the sounds, their lack of musicality to the Western ear, and the customs worthy of any National Geographic will burn Tuva into you forever. There’s even a soundtrack album. Too cool.

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