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Film / Genghis Blues

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Left to right: Kongar-ol Ondar, Paul Pena

Genghis Blues is a 1999 Documentary directed by Roko Belic.

The film's central figure is Singer-Songwriter Paul Pena. Best known for writing the Steve Miller Band hit "Jet Airliner", Pena was a Blind Musician with eclectic influences. Despondent after the death of his wife, Pena became interested in listening to language lesson programs on shortwave radio. In 1984 he was tuning around for a Korean lesson, but instead picked up a Radio Moscow broadcast of unusual singing and became intrigued. He learned that it was the throat-singing tradition of Tuva, a small republic that's officially part of Siberia, wedged between it and Mongolia, and set about teaching himself both the singing style and the Tuvan language. His vocalizing impressed Tuvan singing master Kongar-ol Ondar, who went on tour in America in The '90s, and Kongar-ol invited Pena to Tuva to take part in a 1995 throat-singing symposium and competition. The documentary follows Pena and several associates as they travel from Pena's home in San Francisco to the remote outpost and learn about the culture of the land as it tries to recover its heritage and identity after the fall of the Soviet Union.

A low-key film shot on video, it became a Sleeper Hit among documentary fans, winning an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and getting nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It also brought new attention to Pena and his music. Sadly, both Pena (in 2005 at age 55 from pancreatitis and diabetes) and Kongar-ol Ondar (in 2013 at age 51 from a brain hemorrhage) ended up suffering untimely deaths.


  • Blind People Wear Sunglasses: Very noticeably averted by Paul.
  • Buddy Picture: Anxious American blues rocker Paul Pena and laid-back, friendly Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar develop a strong rapport despite their obvious differences, putting much of the documentary in this category.
  • Cursed Item: After a while, things start to take a bad turn for the main figures in the film. Paul's anxiety and depression medications start to run out and he considers cutting the trip short, but then can't book a flight out. Mario suffers a heart attack. Kongar-ol gets in a fight with a man who confronts him on the street and breaks his hand. Serious consideration is given to the possibility that a shaman's drum Paul bought may have gotten all of them cursed. But after a shaman examines the drum, they get an all-clear and everyone's situation improves.
  • Doing It for the Artinvoked: Paul had no financial incentive to learn an arcane form of singing or travel halfway around the world to perform it. He did it purely out of his love for the music.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Paul not only learns how to throat-sing, he also learns Tuvan (which, since there wasn't a Tuvan-to-English dictionary, necessitated him translating Tuvan words to Russian, then to English), and even starts studying Tuvan shamanism, which makes the visit to Tuva a fulfillment of a longtime dream. But his interest clearly comes from a place of respect, and since Pena is himself a person of color (born into a family of immigrants from Cape Verde), there aren't any Mighty Whitey issues.
  • Friend to All Children: An early scene in Tuva shows Kongar-ol teaching an enthusiastic class of youngsters the basics of throat-singing, and Paul even manages to strike up a rapport with them.
  • Glorious Mother Russia: Since they need to get a connecting flight in Moscow to make it to Tuva, there a few shots of this nature, but the majority of the documentary shows how Tuva is its own cultural pocket without a lot of Russian influence. It's touched on in a few interviews how Tuva joined the Soviet Union in 1944, only to have the Soviets exert heavy cultural hegemony on the Tuvans, forbidding them to wear traditional clothing or speak the language.
  • The Ghost: Richard Feynman, who died seven years before the documentary was filmed, is an important figure in the story, because his recollection of collecting a stamp from Tuva as a child (when it was an indepedent nation) led him and his friend Ralph Leighton to become utterly fascinated with the country, starting a group called Friends of Tuva, and opening a mail correspondence with several Tuvans (Leighton carried the torch for Tuva after Feynman died, and befriended Pena as he sought to learn more about Tuva and throat-singing). Feynman spent the last few years of his life trying to organize a trip to Tuva (chronicled by Leighton in the book Tuva or Bust!), so Pena and his entourage viewed Feynman as a travel partner in spirit.
  • Harsh Vocals: The basic sound of throat-singing, in which the singer focuses their vocalizing in their chest, and tries to vocalize several tones simultaneously. Paul is so skilled at producing a loud rumble that Kongar-ol nicknames him "Earthquake". In interviews outside this documentary Pena explained that he realized there was an affinity between throat-singing and the tradition of guttural vocals in Blues by the likes of Howlin' Wolf.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Tuva has this feel at times, being amazingly remote (it takes Paul and his entourage two days worth of flying to get there), with things like herding and shamanism still a vital part of the culture.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Zig-zagged, since Paul's blindness makes his mastery of a wholly different musical culture and language extremely impressive, but in the film he makes several comments about how his sightlessness is a factor in his issues with depression. He talks about how he often doesn't fully know what's happening in a situation because he can't see, and how disoriented he can feel in crowds.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Pena's touring party to Tuva has this feel, with Paul himself, plus recording engineer and confidant Lemon DeGeorge, septuagenarian radio host Mario Casetta (one of the first American DJs to play World Music) plus director Roko Belic and his brother Adrian. The colorful Kongar-ol Ondar basically becomes one of the gang once they reach Tuva.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Paul cusses a bit, including a few F-bombs.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: While the Steve Miller Band version of "Jet Airliner" is briefly played early in the film, Pena's original 1973 version (which was unreleased at time the film debuted) accompanies the scenes of the flight(s) to Tuva. While the airplane connection is obvious, a lot of the lyrics end up applying to the story quite well ("my homeland is so far away", "you gotta go through Hell before you get to Heaven").
  • Title Drop: Not word-for-word, but the title relates to one voiceover that explains how Genghis Khan had deep respect for Tuva when it was part of the Mongol Empire, and is still revered as a hero there.
  • Travelogue Show: Paul's stay is Tuva is bookended by his competition performances, but in-between Kongar-ol leads him and the others on a tour of the Tuvan countryside.
  • Undesirable Prize: At least for Paul; the prize for winning the competition is a horse.
  • World Music: The uniqueness of throat-singing began to gain it a worldwide audience in The '90s (which is how Paul met Kongar-ol). Paul also invited Mario Casetta, who was an influential figure in publicizing international folk music in America, to join him in Tuva.
  • Writing by the Seat of Your Pants invoked:
    • Paul painstakingly rehearses a song by throat-singer Vladimir Oidupaa for the competition, then learns from Kongar-ol backstage before the performance that Oidupaa was a very divisively controversial figure in Tuva (he was in the middle of serving a long prison sentence for murder). With five minutes to figure out a contingency plan, Paul ends up improvising a song using his limited knowledge of Tuvan, mostly Fan Flattering about Tuva and its people, which gets a rapturous reception. So positive, in fact, that at the second performance he sings the Oidupaa song, knowing that the audience loved him enough to overlook any issues they might have with the song's background.
    • Paul is also shown composing songs about his journey to Tuva while he's there.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: In a voiceover from an older interview, Richard Feynman says that one reason he fell in love with Tuva was the fact that its capital city is called Kyzyl (pronounced kih-ZIL, from the Tuvan word for "red").