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From Tuva to Tupelo

In an evening's discourse with Paul Pena, you're liable to learn these things: he's been a blues musician for thirty years (and he's played with B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker). He is blind. He's a student of Spanish, Hawaiian, Korean, French, and Russian, though he gravitates to "wingwalker," or endangered, languages. He's a Cape Verdean-American, born on Cape Cod. And in 1995, he made his way to Tuva, in the high, arid steppes southwest of Siberia, where he trounced contestants from fourteen countries to win his division in UNESCO's International Throatsinging Competition.

If you live anywhere within earshot of NPR, you've probably heard a few minutes' worth of Tuvan throat singing. It can sound something like a gale wind blowing over the top of a steamship's funnel, accompanied by the oscillating moan of a European ambulance siren, or like a vacuum cleaner/penny whistle duet. Most throat music is overtone music, in which one voice provides drone or harmonics and another the melody, both emanating from a solo vocalist. As a formal musical style, throat singing is integral to traditional Tuvan culture; almost predictably, it's an endangered form in its own land. But the technique isn't confined to northern Central Asia; given a world full of people with music in their heads and time on their hands, varieties of overtone singing were certain to be heard elsewhere. Such as in the Mississippi Delta, the source of Paul Pena's first taste of throat music.

"One of the old blues guys from the thirties, Charlie Patton — when I first heard him it knocked me out: he'd be singing along and all of a sudden he'd talk, and you'd think it was a different guy talking. When he'd sing he did something to his voice that changed it. The thing he did to his voice when he sang is one of the basic things you have to learn to be a skilled throat singer."

Pena first heard Tuvan throat singing by accident, on Radio Moscow. "December 29, 1984. I was going to tape my Korean lesson. I was lucky that I had the tape rolling, though I had no conception of what the music was going to come to be in my life.

"I got on this station and I thought my radio broke. In shortwave you get these oscillations, like whistles; I get on there, man, and I hear this whistling and stuff, and this is a strong station, it should come in like no problem at all. I'm just about to, Oh man, my radio's finally kicked out. I realize that the oscillations, the whistles that I'm hearing are melodies! Now it's like I don't know what my name is. It gets done with and the lady says, Wasn't that something? Did you hear how the man sang two voices at once? I said, Whoa! Jack, that's for me! The lady says, This is from the Tuvash people. It took me seven years to find out that it wasn't Tuvash, it was Tuva."

Some years later, Pena found a Tuvan compilation CD at Round World Music [WER #86], and began teaching himself the basic techniques of Sygyt.

"Some clues began to come to me. There was a bridge between the oral arrangement and the natural, like ABCs and stuff like that. Basically it's variations of vowels and consonants. Vowels are just combinations of the fundamental tone, the tone you're talking or singing. Some of the overtones are louder and some of them are softer and that's what makes the difference. And there's what I call the Wolfman Jack technique, which is where you put an edge, you constrict, you push hard here and you constrict here so it's [singing a sweet, barbaric duet of flute and slack-stringed fuzz bass]."

Soon Pena was working höömeï into his performances. One night, in one of those San Francisco coincidences, he heard that one of the first US tours by a Tuvan troupe was in town —"I got down from the stage and this stranger comes up to me and says, 'Hey man, the guys you sound like are going to be in town in two days.'" Ecstatic, Pena attended the concert, then shocked the lead musician, Kongar-ool Ondar, by throatsinging a traditional song for him. In what must be one of the broader cross-cultural leaps, the two singers became close friends.

Kongar-ool insisted that Pena come to Tuva to participate in Höömeï '95, UNESCO's international throatsinging competition. Pena lacked the money for any such journey ("Whenever you can show me a bank that a blind guy can rob, man, I'll be glad to go!"), but with some finagling and the support of Ralph Leighton and the Friends of Tuva he made it to Tuva and won first place in the kargyraa division.

Pena's an excitable, enthusiastic guy. In conversation, he jumps topics like a flying squirrel, stops in midsentence to sing, fiddles with his mixing equipment, hits an occasional lick on his National guitar, leaps to his feet to jam one cassette after another into a tape player. At one point, finger poised over the Play button, he tells us, "I love this song even if I wrote it. It's called 'Tuva Farewell' and it's got a kind of horse-beat to it because the Tuvans are into horses." As the tape begins, we hear Pena dedicate the song "to Huddy Ledbetter and Oidupaa, two great bluesmen."

A Tuvan bluesman?

"Blues is blues. A Tuvan friend of mine wrote this next song. It's about this guy that just got stabbed and his soul is saying like, 'What an awful thing I had to die. My firends, don't avenge me. Let the killing stop here.' And then the soul goes away; only the moon is there to hear. If that ain't blues I don't know what is."