Last night, I had to give up my original plan to live-blog the Canadian elections when I remembered that nobody really cares.
Instead, I watched a truly entertaining documentary called "Genghis Blues." The film tells the story of the late Paul Pena, the blues singer who wrote "Jet Airliner," the song made popular by the Steve Miller Band in 1977. In 1984, while listening to Radio Moscow, Pena heard a recording of throat singing from Tuva. Although blind since birth, Pena was able to teach himself to speak Tuvan and, amazingly, to throat sing in a variety of Tuvan styles. Throat singing is a technique where the singer can produce harmonics both above and below the main note so that he is actually singing two notes at once. The effect is both eerie and mesmerizing.
When a legendary Tuvan throat singer, Kongar-ol Ondar came to California for a concert in 1993, Pena stunned him by throat singing in the lobby of the concert hall. Ondar was so impressed that he invited Pena to participate in the triennial Tuvan throat singing concert in 1995. With assistance from the Friends of Tuva (an organization founded by, among others, Richard Feynman, who may have been one of the coolest people ever), Pena and a group of film makers traveled to Tuva for the concert.
The two "stars" of the documentary, Ondar and Pena are polar opposites in personality. Ondar is a blaze of smiles and joy. He seems to be having fun just standing and breathing. He is confident, but never with arrogance. Most of the middle of the film is taken up with an account of Ondar's high-spirited, long-distance sightseeing tour of Tuva. Basically, you'd want him to be around all the time to keep your spirits up. Pena, by contrast, is filled with sorrows. He speaks frankly and without sentiment about his struggles with depression and the difficulty of being blind in a sighted world. In particular, he notes that a trip to a foreign land can be a time of terror for him as he has no way of knowing what is happening or who is around. He is so humble, however, and so sincere in his love of the music and culture of Tuva, that it is hard not to be overwhelmed by him. Moreover, the friendship between the two seems genuine.
The documentary could have been a little bit better made. It would have been helpful, for example, to provide an explanation of how these singers are able to produce such unearthly sounds. The film begins with a tantalizing x-ray view of a singer producing the harmonics, but then fails to address the subject.
Still, I highly recommend checking it out.
Also, Ondar is coming to the USA in March and performing at Wesleyan. I am so fascinated by him and his singing, I am considering a road trip to check it out.