Genghis Blues

Genghis Blues (Roco and Adrian Belic, 2000) is about the moment, rarely documented, when one cultural phenomenon influences another, in this case, when blues meets Tuvan multi-harmonic throat singing.

At the beginning, the filmmakers introduce themselves and the contingent needed to make this journey-road movie, which allows each to explain the confluence of events that brought about this trip. The journey is a trip to the UNESCO sponsored throat singing contest in Tuva in 1995 and is taken by Paul Pena, a self-taught North American throat singer. At this point I felt a little uneasy. Was Tuva going to be the backdrop for another American holiday? If the film goes to Tuva, I don’t want to be stuck on the train with the Americans as the Tuvian landscape whizzes past the window outside, unexplored. Very quickly, however, Paul Pena takes your heart, he allows you to relax into this cross-cultural journey without a hint of cultural imperialism; a strong and important mutual exchange is taking place.

A blind blues singer of Cape Verdian heritage discovered Tuvian throat singing on Radio Moscow SW in 1984 and hunted for an example of it for years. When he finally found it on a world music album, with the aid of a Russian/Tuvian dictionary, he taught himself enough of the language to steal the hearts of the Tuvian people and seal your respect for this genuinely exceptional man.

The tiny Tuva Republic sequestered away in the south east of the Russian Confederation has around 200,000 native speakers, a Central Asian ethnic minority whose history was herding on the steppes and who’s greatest known son is Genghis Khan.

Watching Paul, who, for the first time in his life has stage fright, arise at the triennial throat singing competition and introduce himself in Tuvian is just one of the film’s and Paul’s greatest moments. Under Russian rule since WW II, the Tuvians have had to cling to their traditions and language only very recently restored to them through some measure of autonomy. Russians who have lived there fifty years don’t speak a word of Tuvian so imagine the roar of delight when Paul thanks his hosts in a short throat song he composed for the occasion. Up until this point, there has been some suspense as to the extent of his mastery of the art. But Paul is an artist.

Throat singing is an ability through muscular control and constriction to isolate separate notes produced in various parts of the body at the same time. It is a remarkable and highly developed art that Paul understood within the context of blues singing and can be heard in the sounds produced by someone like Howlin’ Wolf. Paul developed his ability alone and met with his host Kongar-ol Ondar, the throat singing master, when Kongar-ol and his group came to San Francisco in 1993 to perform. After the concert, Paul went up to him and began singing, initiating a friendship which blossoms during the course of this journey.

The relationship between Paul Pena, descendant of Cape Verde immigrants, a group of islands off the African coast, and Kongar-ol Ondar, the master of Tuvian multi-harmonic throat singing, is how we travel this isolated and inspiring landscape. Kongar-ol Ondar takes Paul to meet his grandparents, across the great dry steppes, through herds of sheep and holy spots where shaman come and pray in ancient Tuvian. Each stage is a deeper induction into the Tuvian culture and the personal journey of a very special friendship that grows between these two musicians.

Genghis Blues screens for an exclusive and limited season at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, from December 7.

Genghis Blues – Festival Awards

* 2000 Academy Award Nomination: Best Documentary
* 2000 Best Documentary – Audience Vote, Sydney Film Festival
* Best Of Festival – 2000 Edinburgh Film Festival
* Best Of Festival – 2000 Rotterdam Film Festival
* Audience Award 2000 Sundance Film Festival

About The Author

Mim Whiting is a VCA doco postgraduate, and the co-ordinator of the Melbourne Documentary Group.

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