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.