This is one of those documentaries filmed in such a rudimentary, on-the-fly manner that it has to get by on subject matter alone. Fortunately, the subject is very appealing.
It’s the story of the blind blues singer Paul Pena, a journeyman artist who, despite having played with T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, and having penned the Steve Miller hit "Jet Airliner," has never quite achieved fame. And who, for reasons known only to him, one day became fascinated by an exotic form of vocalizing called throatsinging. This arabesque style of singing, which produces split tones that hover over a very deep, gravelly bass drone, is indigenous to the tiny republic of Tuva, on the Russian-Mongolian border.
Using recordings as learning tapes, Pena mastered this rare art and became so adept at it that a traveling group of Tuvan musicians invited him to visit their country to participate in their triennial throatsinging contest. The film follows Pena to Tuva where he wows the locals, while we soak up local color and bathe in the mutual goodwill.
If this all sounds shamelessly heartwarming, well it is – a little tale of cultural gap-bridging with a central character of undeniable if occasionally cranky charisma.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].