Paul Pena, the blind blues singer who featured in the documentary ‘Genghis Blues’ has died, aged only 55.
I wrote about him and the film some time ago. Given his long history of illness, his departure is hardly unexpected, but still very sad.
“What I wanted to do was go right to the heart of the North. When it’s -25, you don’t hear lower registers. You hear the cracking of snow, the wind and breathing, people talking. So then, there’s only the flute and voices, and the cracking comes from the percussion.”
Tantalising news seeps through of a showing tonight of the classic documentary of Inuit life, Nanook of the North with a new soundtrack of flutes, drums and throatsinging. Although I’ve concentrated on Tuvan throatsinging in the past, the techniques are found in several cultures, including parts of Southern Africa and among the Inuits. Sadly for me, the performance is in Toronto.
The Nunatsiaq News, from which this article derives, appears to serve a territory that had previously escaped my attention, Nunavut:
“In the Inuit language of Inuktitut, Nunavut means “Our Land”. It is the name given to the ancestral home of the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic, and to the new Territory of Nunavut in Canada’s eastern Arctic.
Nunavut was created from part of the Northwest Territories of Canada on 1 April 1999.
The Times has a charming article about Mongolia’s reintroduction of second names, which were banned in the Soviet era because they reinforced tribal bonds.
The problem is that, in a still largely nomadic culture with relatively few written records, many people can’t remember what their family or tribal name was. Hence, they’re allowed to choose anything they like, leading to a wholly predictable glut of Genghis Khans. Others are helped by Serjee Besud, director of the Central State Library:
“I tell them to think of something they were born near,” he said, “the name of a river, valley or mountain. Or people might call themselves after their occupation. We have many Mr Writers and Mr Hunters, even a Mr Policeman.”
So, if you could choose your surname, what would it be? I’ve currently got a soft spot for the horse-gallop name of the Latvian left-back Blagonadezdin, one of the few names that sounds better the faster it’s said.
If you think I’m crazy about Tuvan throat-singing, just try this.
Out in San Francisco lived a blues singer named Paul Pena, a man who had worked with greats like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. He had recorded an album in the seventies that failed to get a release, but a song from which had become a hit for the Steve Miller Band. In the way of all things blues, he was blind, unlucky, sickly and prone to depression.
In the eighties, he gave up his music to look after his sick wife. He spent his sleepless nights listening to shortwave radio, picking up stations from all round the world. Late one night he tuned into Radio Moscow and heard something extraordinary, something that haunted him.
He spent nearly eight years trying to find out what he had heard. Finally he discovered just what it was he had chanced upon: khoomeii, throat-singing from the Tuva province of Russia. The technique is one of a number used by Tuvan singers, and involves forming the mouth into two chambers so that two tones are produced simultaneously; a bass hum and a keening harmonic whistle that modulates high above. He located a CD of the music, and set about studying it.
At the same time, he attempted to learn as much of the Tuvan language as possible, so that he could understand what was being sung about. In the absence of a Tuvan-English dictionary, this meant translating through a Tuvan-Russian dictionary, then through a Russian-English one. For this he used an obsolete ‘Opticon’ scanner that turned the characters on the page into sensations he could interpret, meaning that Paul was effectively translating across four languages and two dimensions.
Khoomeii is only ever taught in Tuva by contact with a master. There are no instruction manuals, no courses. The technique is still only partially understood by musicologists. Paul Pena, left alone after the death of his wife, with a single recording for reference, taught himself.
In 1993 some Tuvan singers pitched up in San Francisco for the first time. Paul was ready, waiting backstage after the concert. He met Kongar-ol Ondar, a champion khoomei-singer, and gave him an impromptu performance of some Tuvan folk songs, in Tuvan.
Pena and Ondar became firm friends as a result of this extraordinary encounter, and Ondar invited him to take part in the next triennial throat-singing festival back in Tuva.
In 1995, Pena, nicknamed ‘Chershemjer’ (Earthquake) for his rumbling voice and quake-zone home, travelled out to compete in the week-long competition. He came back with two awards.
Since then, a certain recognition has followed. June 11th 1999 was ‘Paul Pena Day’ in San Francisco, and he has been made the city’s ‘Tuvan Blues Ambassador’. Even that lost 1973 album has finally been released. This being a bluesman, however, there is no happy ending. Pena is suffering from a very serious pancreatic illness, and is now forced to accept donations to pay his medical bills.
This story pushes so many of my buttons (as the marketeers would put it) that I can hardly believe that I hadn’t encountered it until now. As it is, I am now awaiting delivery of the album that Paul and Kongar-ol recorded together. Even better, it forms the soundtrack to a documentary recording Paul’s 1995 journey to Tuva and participation in the competition, ‘Genghis Blues’. You will not be surprised to hear that the documentary won a hatful of awards at film festivals, including the audience award at Sundance.
I am nervous of watching this film. I suspect that it can only break the perfection of the story, particularly its tremulous, precarious existence on the edge of my world. An acclaimed documentary is going to make it too real, too concrete, too particularised. As it stands there is a mythic quality to the story, a universality of human sentiment that exposure to a more faithful record of the events can only leave scratched and weatherworn.
I am nervous of watching this film, but I must watch it.
Look, you haven’t completely escaped accounts of throat-singing yet.
If you’ve been following carefully you’ll know I’m off to see Yat-kha again tomorrow night. This time it’s a ‘proper’ gig in a ‘proper’ venue. I have the day off as well, so I’m going to be bouncing by the time I get there.
It’s like waiting for Santa to come round on his tractor.*
* Growing up on the edge of the marshes, as I did, you don’t see these things as odd, or even particular. The week before Christmas, one of the local farms would rig up a trailer to the back of a tractor and take it round the town with a Santa on the back distributing sweets to the kids. All significant events where I grew up involve people carted around town by tractor, including the carnival queens and carol singers.
If Soviet cinematic propaganda being subverted by ethnic thrash-folkists doesn’t do it for you (and if it doesn’t, you surely haven’t been paying close enough attention), then perhaps you’ll enjoy this half-constructed Tuvan myth about an Englishman named Proctor who erected a monument marking the exact centre of Asia.
My bet is that “Proctor” was actually the ubiquitous Sandy Arbuthnot.
Regular readers will be thrilled, no doubt, to learn that I spent yesterday evening watching Tuva’s own Yat-kha perform their live soundtrack to Storm over Asia.
Yat-kha were a three-piece on this occasion. Band leader Albert Kuvezin sat hunched up on the right, bringing thunder with his electric guitar and buzzing, subterranean bass growl. On the left, Radik Tiuliush added the scraping, whinnying noise of the igil (a form of two-stringed cello) and khoomei, the throat-singing I’ve gone on about so much. In the centre, pony-tail and beard clearly visible against the screen just behind him, Evginiy Tkachev looked reassuringly like a grizzled rock drummer, all bare arms and sproutings of hair, while covering percussion of all sorts.
Between the three of them, Yat-kha simply rocked the Barbican. I don’t mean that they blasted away for two solid hours. Far from it. For most of the film, Kuvezin’s folkish guitar doodling led the band gently from scene to scene, responding to the early Soviet propaganda-sized emoting up on screen, but saving the most eloquent passages for the long, slow shots of the Tuvan landscape, all empty plains and brutally rugged hills.
The igil turns out to be particularly good at imitating the sounds of a horse and of a hard wind whipping through a yurt. I doubt that this is coincidence.
The singing can also sound like the wind, or a ceremonial horn, or, frankly, nothing you’ve ever heard before. It was wisely kept to an elegant minimum in the first half, which for the most part told the story of a young herdsman’s misfortune in having a prize fur stolen at market by a rich English trader, then how he falls in with the local Soviet partisans.
The second, wilder, half of the film tells how he is captured by the occupying English, is sentenced to be killed, but survives to be identified (mistakenly) as a legitimate descendent of Genghis Khan. The English then attempt to set him up as a puppet ruler, only for him to finally escape and rally the Tuvan cause against the oppressors.
This rather ripe plot clearly caused political problems; the film was butchered by the Soviet censors, and the quality of image is awful in places where it has had to be reconstructed. Nevertheless, it’s a fine example of high Soviet film-making, with some blaring whip-cutting and sophisticated montage. Early on, as the herdsman leaves his yurt, unaware that he will never return, the hut slowly fades out of existence behind him, communicating his final leaving of home in the most concise manner possible.
There are two absolutely stand-out scenes in the film. The first records a Buddhist ceremonial dance. This starts with Yat-kha mimicking the horns and cymbals of the monks, then slowly builds through a stately procession to a whirligig masked stomp. It’s probably of some ethnographic interest, but in the film serves mainly as a foretaste of the storm to come.
The storm, which has been building with careful slowness through the film, finally arrives in its final couple of minutes, when the herdsman makes a leaping escape from the English encampment. Soldiers are sent rushing after him as he makes off on horseback. Yat-kha are racing, too, by this point. The herdsman screams vengeance on the thieves who have stolen his country, the intertitles flashing in and out of picture as he glares out of the screen at the audience. The soldiers are closing in.
Then, without warning he is accompanied by a raging Mongol horde. The wind is roaring across the plains, pummelling the soldiers, sending them tumbling backwards, tearing up trees, covering the land with seas of debris. By this stage, the band on stage are sounding like a horde themselves. It’s impossible to tell where all the sound is coming from, whether it’s from an instrument or those extraordinary voices. This bone-humming music, these cthonic harmonies from deep within this eternally stamped-upon people. After all the art, the careful guarding of folk tradition, the slow, slow horsetrot of nearly two hours of film, for a couple of minutes the Tuvans remember Genghis Khan and roar.
This blog reached what I consider to be a high point of wilful obscurity in January when I subjected you poor readers to an entire week of enthusiasm about the sinister oddness that is Tuvan throat-singing.
Imagine my state of bouncing-off-seat glee today, then, as I learn that the mighty Yat-kha, the Tuvan Pogues*, are playing two dates in London this summer.
Shall I go and see them at the Spitz in June? Or shall I go to the Barbican for their improvised soundtrack to the infamous 1928 Soviet film, ‘Storm over Asia‘? (That’s a very funky Barbican site for the X-Bloc festival, by the way. Give it a look.)
Do you know something? I might just do both.
* That’s a very approximate comparison, you understand
Friday mid-afternoon, and most people’s thoughts are turning to home (if they haven’t already scarpered off early). I’m feeling pretty good about myself, largely because I’ve managed to get it together to donate blood for the first time ever. That, a decent week’s work, and the prospect of redressing a serious hospitality imbalance with some friends over the weekend, make my karma suspiciously high. I wonder what I’ll spend it on?
Time also to wrap up Rogue Semiotics’ Tuvan week.
I mentioned before that throat-singing involves self-harmonisation. I didn’t explain how difficult it is. It’s at least as tricky as it sounds.
All is not lost, however. A few Westerners have learnt the technique, and if you fancy learning to sing like a frog and a bird simultaneously, you could do worse than join the (misleadingly named) International Assoication for Harmonic Singing, check in with the Friends of Tuva or visit the ‘Khoo-maniacs’ messageboard.
Or just listen to the music. And , of course, wear the jacket.
Tuvan band Yat-kha won the Asian/Pacific category of the Radio 3 World Music awards last year. Led by the incomparable Albert Kuvezin, Yat-kha started as a punkish reaction to the strictly controlled state orchestras of the late Soviet era.
There is still some electric guitar and fusion evident in the band’s work, but their more recent music has seen them concentrate on traditional Tuvan songs. Brilliantly, Radio 3 still have one of these tracks on their World Music microsite here, which perfectly frames Albert’s powerful throat-singing.
That track is called ‘Oy Adym’ (’My Grey Horse’). Albert’s sleeve notes say:
“At the beginning is also a ‘turgen chuka’ (fast talk) which is a game by words and rhythm, impossible to translate even approx. […] The winner is who can talk as much as possible in one breath.”
The lyrics to the rest of the song are as follows:
A horse is rushing along the steppe with boldness boy on its back
This is my grey trotter, this is my brother Mergen
The Grey is galloping like an arrow across long fields with a small girl on its back
This is my famous trotter, this is my smart daughter.
Many of the songs seem to be about horses. These are plains-living people, after all. The other major feature is mountains, presumably for the same reason. Another Yat-kha recording, ‘Sambazhyktyn-yry’ (’Song of Sambazhyk’) starts with the lines:
You are visible even from a distance
Holy red mountain Kyzul Taiga.
Tomorrow, Tuva week on Rogue Semiotics ends by saying ‘Pay attention, here comes the science bit’.
Khöömeior khoomii is, of course, Tuvan throat-singing, and it’s time for your daily dose (you didn’t think I’d let you off the hook, did you?)
First of all, where is Tuva?
Here. Or, as it was in 1943, here. (This is how it will probably appear - or not - on your modern map.)
Second, what the blue blazes is throat-singing?
It’s the spine-tingling technique of self-harmonising - producing a whistling, pure harmonic over a droning bass note. It can sound slightly comical, or sinister and bestial, but mostly I find it evocatively beautiful, perhaps because it sounds so otherworldly, so little like a human sound.
That was Huun-huur-tu, the current giants of Tuvan music, who provided my first, startling, introduction to the sound. Magnificently, the name means ’sun propellor’. As their website explains:
The vertical separation of light rays that often occurs just after sunrise or just before sunset. For the members of Huun-Huur-Tu, the refraction of light that produces these rays seems analogous to the “refraction” of sound that produces articulated harmonics in Tuvan throat-singing.
Tomorrow: those lyrics I promised.
I have my mission for the week, and I’m very excited about it.
It’s to get you all to listen to some Tuvan music (Link to Amazon’s RealPlayer sample of ‘Kaldak-Khamar’ by Yat-Kha).
I bullied someone into getting me Aldyn Dashka by Yat-Kha for Christmas, and it’s been blowing my mind ever since.
Tomorrow: the grandaddies of Tuvan music, and some lyrics