Delta blues and Tuvan throat-singing: Paul Pena and Genghis Blues

In the Christmas episode of sf writer Spider Robinson's delightfully eclectic podcast (I'm running a little behind in my podcasts right now), Spider introduced the work of American bluesman Paul Pena, playing a couple of his tracks. I was blown away.

Pena, a blind musician, was captivated by the sounds of Tuvan throat-singing, which he encountered for the first time on a late-night shortwave transmission. He taught himself to throat-sing, and met with and befriended Kongar-ol Ondar, forming the band Genghis Blues, which merged throat-singing with Delta blues in a marvellous and haunting way.

Pena died tragically after a misdiagnosis of pancreatic cancer led to his being addicted to -- and then brutally denied -- heavy painkillers, and subsequently died from pancreatitis and complications from diabetes. (Set sez, "He was never brutally denied painkillers -- after he found out that the first Dr. made a mistake in diagnosis, he finally found a competent and good Dr. who helped him manage his pain, quite compassionately, up until the end. ")

His music is a rich legacy, though. The combination of Tuvan throat-singing and the blues is not to be believed -- or missed. MP3 link to Spider's podcast (Pena segment starts about 5:20), Genghis Blues DVD, Genghis Blues CD

Information on Genghis Blues, Paul Pena homepage, Paul Pena on Wikipedia,

Spider Robinson podcast


  1. When Frank Zappa was dying from cancer, he held “soirees” in his studio. One of which featured the Throat Singers jamming with Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and the Chieftans. I saw a couple minutes of it on the A & E Zappa Biography show, but I’d LOVE to hear the whole set!

  2. If you liked Paul Pena….
    You might like the Mongolian band Yat-Kha, led by Albert Kuvezhin.
    I posted a track here:-
    The track is off the album “Re-Covers”.
    Or there’s a great Polish band with throatsingers…. Yerba Mater… You’ll find them here- along with Masala Soundsystem…….
    The Internet has wonderful diversity…..
    I found all these after an interest in Tuva was sparked by Dr Richard Feynman, physicist.

  3. The documentary Genghis Blues is awesome… There is an interesting point where it changes from novel to gripping when it really hits Pena that nothing around him is familiar, a hard thing for a blind person to cope with.

    Also, lots of background Feynman goodness.

  4. I liked the movie as well as the soundtrack. I second the recommendation of Yat-Kha, I saw them here in Indiana doing the music for the silent film “Storm Over Asia”. The projectionist could not get the movie started for an hour and a half, so they gave us an impromptu concert. I also recommend Hun Huur Tu.

  5. Genghis Blues is not just a good documentary. In my opinion, it is one of the five or so greatest documentaries of all time. If you open your heart to it, and let yourself really understand and feel what is happening in it, you will be blown away.

  6. I remember being fascinated by Kongar-ol Ondar when he performed on Letterman a few years back. (Here’s a clip of this that I found on YouTube.)

  7. Genghis Blues is a amazing film. Incredible heart, incredible people. (Netflix has it, if you don’t want to buy a copy sight unseen.)

  8. Paul Pena also studied with Jill Purce, and apparently she was the person he heard on the shortwave broadcast. Here she is introduced by Terence McKenna:

  9. I have pancreatitis. As a devout atheist/existentialist, I would readily kill my worst enemy, but I would not wish this horribly painful malady on him.

    Trip out: When it flares up, about every 4 months or so, I take heroin to deal with the pain, and I’m not a drug user otherwise–at all. I can’t go to hospital any more because they think I’m just trying to get free drugs from them. I have no choice.

  10. Thanks for the suggestion. Mokin’ a yoint? No offense, but you don’t realize the intensity. It’s way beyond THC.

  11. Great doc–loved it when it came out and picked it up on DVD last year.

    Surprised no one’s mentioned that almost everyone reading this has heard at least one Paul Pena song before: “Jet Airliner,” made famous by one Steve Miller…

  12. I must take a moment to add in:

    “Senegalese native and North Mississippi transplant Guelel Kumba plays amplified acoustic guitar and sings in Fulani. Able backing comes from guitarist and Junior Kimbrough apprentice Eric Deaton, Kimbrough’s son Kinney (drums), R.L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric (drums), a host of North Mississippi session men, and other guests including Memphis sax-flute journeyman Herman Green (Lionel Hampton, B.B. King, Miles Davis) and activist-poet-jazz historian-promoter-DJ John Sinclair (of MC5 and White Panther fame, and a New Orleans resident since the early 1990s)…”

  13. Thanks BB! thanks to all posters who have given me more insight into Paul Pena,just finished watching the doc – blown away -cultural curiosity is a beautiful human trait,intrinsic in our very nature,more so than fear and suspicion.Truly heart warming.Music can bring us together.
    elsmiley – My heart goes out to you.

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