Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I was saddened to learn today that Paul Pena died on Saturday after an extended illness. He was a talented guy with an interesting life story. Born blind, he was a musical prodigy as a child and eventually wrote what turned out to be a monster hit for the Steve Miller Band in "Jet Airliner." But it was his career resurgence in the 1990s when things really got interesting.

In grief over the death of his wife and searching for something to take his mind off of his troubles, Pena ran across a broadcast of Tuvan throatsinging on his shortwave radio—also called khoomei, that's the distinctive rumbling, droning Central Asian vocal style in which the singer can produce up to four notes at once. It's had a (very small) wave of popularity in the U.S. in the past few years, but as far as I know it was almost totally unknown here when Pena first heard it, which makes it all the more amazing that on his own, with only a few recordings to go by, he taught himself how to sing khoomei and eventually became a master of the deep, booming, bullfrog-like form of it called kargyraa. Later, he introduced himself to the Tuvan musical community in style when he showed up at a concert by the most successful of the Tuvan musical groups, Huun Huur Tu, and amazed the band during the intermission with a perfect rendition of a Tuvan folk song they were scheduled to sing in the second set. Eventually he visited Tuva, competed in their national throatsinging contest against the best in the country, and won. (The prize was a horse, which I don't imagine he had much use for.)

The story is told in the Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues, which fascinated me so much I saw it twice during the week it played at the local arthouse theater in my city, and bought the video later on. It wasn't just that he could sing khoomei—he was also a skilled bluesman, and the Genghis Blues soundtrack is full of a really intriguing synthesis of throatsinging and Delta blues. I always hoped that he'd get well enough to be able to record another CD, but it wasn't to be. One nice side effect of Genghis, though, was that it spurred the release of Pena's terrific 1973 solo album New Train, which had been buried on a shelf for a quarter-century for some unknown reason. (His original version of "Jet Airliner" is one of the highlights.)


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