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RIP Paul Pena

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  • Carl Zimring
    Paul Pena -- star of 1999 documentary Genghis Blues David Rubien,
    Message 1 of 2 , Oct 7, 2005

      Paul Pena -- star of 1999 documentary 'Genghis Blues'

      David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer

      Tuesday, October 4, 2005

      Paul Pena, a San Francisco blues artist who mastered the arcane art of
      Tuvan throat singing, died Saturday from complications of diabetes and
      pancreatitis. He was 55.

      Many people are familiar with Mr. Pena because of the 1999 Academy
      Award-nominated documentary "Genghis Blues," which tells the story of how
      he took up throat singing, culminating with an eventful trip to the Central
      Asian country Tuva, where he won awards in a throat singing competition.

      But millions more are acquainted with his work without even knowing it
      because he wrote the song "Jet Airliner," which was a Top 10 hit for the
      Steve Miller Band in 1977.

      Mr. Pena, almost completely blind since birth and plagued by illnesses most
      of his life, lived off the royalties from that hit.

      Mr. Pena was born to a family of Cape Verdean background in Hyannis, Mass.
      He proved to be a natural musician, singing and teaching himself several
      instruments. In the late '60s, he was in a band that opened for big-time
      acts including the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa. Blues artists ranging
      from T-Bone Walker to B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt recognized his talents,
      hiring him to play guitar in their bands.

      "He's like having my very own Jimi Hendrix," Raitt once said. "There's
      simply nothing he can't play well."

      In 1971, Mr. Pena moved to San Francisco, where he played many gigs,
      frequently opening for Jerry Garcia's and Merle Saunders' bands.

      His career was on a positive arc when he released an album, "Paul Pena," in
      1972. But things took a bad turn when he recorded a follow-up, "New Train,"
      the next year. Mr. Pena got caught up in a dispute with volatile label
      owner Albert Grossman, best known for managing Bob Dylan, the Band, Janis
      Joplin and others. Grossman refused to release "New Train."

      "That just broke Paul's heart," said Seth Augustus, a musician who studied
      throat singing with Mr. Pena and helped care for him over the past several

      The album did finally come out in 2000 -- by which time Mr. Pena was
      reeling from the shocks of experiencing the release of "Genghis Blues" and
      getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Told he had only a few months to
      live, Mr. Pena began a course of chemotherapy. Shortly after, however, his
      doctors said they made a mistake: It was pancreatitis, not cancer after all.

      Mr. Pena became interested in throat singing when he heard a Tuvan
      broadcast on his shortwave radio in 1984. Later he got ahold of a Tuvan
      record, playing it countless times until he learned how to throat sing,
      which involves producing several distinct vocal-cord sounds simultaneously.
      In 1993, attending a throat singing performance at the Asian Art Museum, he
      demonstrated his own technique to Kongar-ol Ondar, one of the foremost
      throat singers in the world. Ondar was mightily impressed with Mr. Pena,
      nicknaming him "Earthquake" and inviting him to come to Tuva to participate
      in the annual competition.

      His 1995 journey to Tuva -- where he won the contest in two categories and
      charmed locals who were delighted with this foreigner who mastered their
      art form -- is recounted in "Genghis Blues."

      "The influence he had on other people was very bright," Augustus said of
      Mr. Pena. "He taught me more about music than anyone ever did."

      Mr. Pena is survived by his parents, Jack and Virginia Pena of Cape Cod,
      Mass., and two brothers, Jim of Lynnfield, Mass., and Peter.

      A public memorial concert and celebration of Mr. Pena's life will be
      announced at a later date on www.paulpena.com.
    • Steve Gardner
      How sad. Folks, if you haven t seen Gengis Blues , get it on your netflix queue pronto. RIP steve
      Message 2 of 2 , Oct 10, 2005
        How sad.

        Folks, if you haven't seen "Gengis Blues", get it on your netflix queue


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