Paul Pena heard a sound -- something intensely beautiful but disturbing at the same time -- coming from his short-wave radio. The sound was that of Tuvan throat-singers, a sound that changed his life forever and sent him on a journey across the world to a land unknown. In his search for harmony and the answer to a mystifying obsession, music helped Pena bridge two cultures.
This Oscar®-nominated film is the story of a blind blues musician and his triumphant trek to the forgotten land of Tuva and the mysterious are of Khoomei, or throat-singing, a seemingly impossible form of singing that produces multiple vocal tones simultaneously. Paul Pena, who has played with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Garcia, Muddy Waters and BB King, travels to Tuva to live among the descendants of Genghis Khan and compete in their triannual Khoomei contest.
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The ancient art of Tuvan throat singing may not sound like the most scintillating subject for a movie, but for those wishing to immerse themselves in a different culture or meet remarkable people, this inspiring and exhilarating Oscar-nominated documentary will be pure pleasure. This is a story no Hollywood screenwriter could have imagined. Paul Pena is a blind San Francisco blues singer who has played with the likes of John Lee Hooker and Jerry Garcia (he also penned "Jet Airliner," which Steve Miller covered). One night while listening to his shortwave radio, he picked up a Radio Moscow broadcast and heard the mesmerizing, gutteral sound of throat singing, which is peculiar to Tuva's region of upper Mongolian. Enthralled, he became a master of this obscure art form. Enter Friends of Tuva, a curious group that included Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who likewise had become fascinated with Tuva. In 1993 they sponsored a San Francisco appearance by Tuvan singers. Pena was in the audience and met with the singers afterward. Pena so impressed the Tuvans that he was encouraged to come to Tuva and participate in its annual festival competition. Genghis Blues chronicles this incredible journey. Pena's performance is as joyous and triumphant as the Buena Vista Social Club's Carnegie Hall concert, but this is more than just a one-note concert film. It also movingly charts Pena's friendship with revered Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar (whose stature is described as "John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jordan rolled into one"). Documentarians Roko and Adrian Belic modestly profess they were ill equipped to make this documentary. They may have a point, but would you pass up such an opportunity? --Donald Liebenson
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