Scruffy and ingenuousand not just by Wild Wild WeststandardsRoko Belic's Genghis Bluesis a documentary about Paul Pena, a blind San Francisco blues musician who trained himself in the art of Tuvan throat-singing after hearing a Tuvan recording on his shortwave radio. (Tuva is a tiny country on the border of Mongolia that enjoyed about 20 years of autonomy until it was taken over by China in the mid '40s.) In throat-singing, the vocal cords produce two or three different notes simultaneouslyyou harmonize with yourself without the aid of a multitrack mixer. Pena also taught himself the Tuvan language through a complicated process that involved two braille dictionariesan English to Russian and a Russian to Tuvansince no English to Tuvan one exists. When a group of Tuvan singers came to San Francisco on a concert tour, Pena was ready for them. They were so impressed by the way he sang their music and incorporated throat-singing into his own mix of blues and folk that they nicknamed him Earthquake (for the sound he made) and invited him to Tuva to participate in the annual throat-singing competition.
Largely a record of that trip, Genghis Bluesis not only an ebullient music documentary but a fairly unsettling portrait of a tenacious artist who, aside from a brief success in the '60s, lived in poverty and isolation until he was discovered by a community of musicians in the most distant part of the world. Genghis Bluesis best when it sticks to straightforwardly recording Pena's onstage performances and his moving interactions with his Tuvan hosts. When Belic tries to liven things up with memory montages or even tiny cutaways, his inexperience as a filmmaker becomes painfully evident. But basically he's done right by Pena, and that's what matters. With a better camera, and some practice (Pena practiced throat-singing for 15 years and says he was still terrified when he took the stage in Tuva), have more to rely on than his natural empathy.
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