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With: Paul Pena, Kongar-ol Ondar, B.B. King
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Roko Belic
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 88
Date: 01/01/1999

Genghis Blues (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rock the Throat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Roko Belic and his brother Adrian Belic, Genghis Blues is a documentary that follows San Francisco blues musician Paul Pena to the lost country of Tuva (between Siberia and Mongolia), where "throatsinging" originated. "Throatsinging" sounds a little like an Australian didjeridu, or like a "frog swallowing a whistle." It's some of the spookiest and most mesmerizing stuff I've ever heard.

Regardless, Genghis Blues seems to be flying along by the seat of its pants. It's unplanned and haphazard. But, by a stroke of luck, and like Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1995), the center of the movie contains a most compelling character in Pena.

Pena is probably best known for writing the Steve Miller Band song "Jet Airliner." But listening to a short wave radio one night, he recorded some Tuvan throatsinging by accident. He listened to the tape again and again, practiced, and soon became a decent "throatsinger" in his own right. The movie begins as Pena and a large crew of misfits journey to Tuva to compete in a local throatsinging competition.

Without the ragged yet babyfaced Pena Genghis Blues probably wouldn't work so well. His genuine enthusiasm and humility are inspiring. The ragtag crew drags Pena all over the place, and he takes it like a good sport. He's clearly a sad and shy man with a big heart. When he sings in Tuvan he tells the locals how honored he is to be there and how much he loves them all. And you believe him. He's such a fascinating character that there ought to be an Oscar for people who play themselves in documentaries.

The sad note is that Pena recently discovered that he is dying of terminal cancer. I had the supreme honor of hearing him throatsing in person before the Closing Night film at the SF International Film Festival this year. Don't miss the opportunity to meet this fascinating man in Genghis Blues.

(Note: Mr. Pena passed away in October of 2005.)

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