Paul Pena

San Francisco bluesman turned throat-singer
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The Independent Online

Paul Pena, singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Hyannis, Massachusetts 26 January 1950; married; died San Francisco 1 October 2005.

Few musicians can have set out on a musical journey as unusual as that undertaken by the near-blind San Francisco bluesman Paul Pena. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, he had enjoyed some success as a journeyman guitarist and had written "Jet Airliner", a hit for Steve Miller in 1977, but had struggled to carve out a unique musical niche. In 1995, however, he found himself competing in the Second International Throat-Singing Festival in the Tuvan capital, Kyzyl, and stunned the locals by taking first place. Dubbed Chershemjer (Earthquake) by his hosts in tribute to his deep voice, in time he became known, too, as "San Francisco's Tuvan Blues Ambassador".

Tuvan throat-singing, in which the vocalist tightens the throat to produce up to four clearly audible notes at the same time, has developed a growing international fan-base over the past decade, but was virtually unknown beyond its Central Asian homeland when Pena first discovered it. He stumbled upon the multi-harmonic sound in 1984 when he heard it on a short-wave broadcast emanating from Moscow. He spent the next few years teaching himself the style and in 1993 befriended the genre's leading master, Kongar-ol Ondar.

In 1995 Ondar invited Pena to take part in the competition at Kyzyl, an event that was to be immortalised by the documentary filmmakers Adrian and Roko Belic. The resulting movie, Genghis Blues, was released to widespread acclaim in 1999 and went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. A striking disc of the same name featured not only a number of fine collaborations between Pena and Ondar, but also an atmospheric cover of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues".

Paul Pena was born in Massachusetts in 1950. His paternal grandparents had emigrated to the United States from the Cape Verde islands and morna, the blues-tinged music of his ancestors, remained a formative influence. As a child he heard, too, the music of his jazz musician father and despite his disability was soon playing guitar, piano and bass.

In 1969 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival and by 1971 was sufficiently confident as a musician to make the move to San Francisco, where he became a mainstay of the local folk-blues scene. In 1972 he cut an eponymous album for Capitol Records, but it fared poorly and a series of sides he cut in 1973 had to wait over 20 years for an eventual release.

The success of Genghis Blues generated sufficient interest in Pena's music to enable those tracks to surface on an album entitled New Train, but the diagnosis of a pancreatic illness prevented him from capitalising on his new-found fame.

Paul Wadey