My first known introduction to Paul Pena was through the documentary Genghis Blues, which follows him to Tuva, a region on the border of Serbia/Mongolia made famous for its deep and culturally significant Tuvan throat singing. My real, and unknown, introduction to this musical genius found my teenaged ass rocking out to the Steve Miller Band’s rendition of his Jet Airliner. It would be 17 years later until I heard Pena’s version, which is miles beyond the SMB version that made the song famous.
Born in Hyannis, Massachusets in 1950, Paul Pena’s grandparents hailed from the Cape Verde Islands, just off the Western coast of Africa. (It is interesting to note that the famous Cesaria Evora also hails from this same island, a location obviously entrenched in its rich musical heritage).
Two years after his debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, Paul moved to San Francisco, soon becoming one of the city’s many creative sons.
After picking up a Radio Moscow feature on his short-wave radio, Paul Pena spent the following 8 years trying to find the origin of the amazing harmonies he heard, ultimatley revealing the art of Tuvan throat singing. Using English-Russian and Russian-Tuvan dictionaries and an obsolete ‘Opticon’ scanning device which translates text into sensations, Pena trained himself in this Tuvan art form.
Damn. That’s a whole bunch of work to try and learn a skill that few on Earth master. Now nicknamed “Earthquake” by the Tuvan masters themselves, Paul Pena had indeed taught himself this absurdly difficult art, and well.
Plagued by years of battling both Pancreatitus and Diabetes, Paul’s suffering ended October 1, 2005. I can only thank him for the music he has given us, and look forward to his treasures I have yet to discover.