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it takes little imagination to understand why Roko and Adrian Belic had problems financing their film. It would focus on a type of music—throat-singing—that few had ever heard of, and be filmed in Tuva, an isolated region near Mongolia that wasn’t even on the map. Worse still, the camera would follow one Paul Pena—a relatively unknown blind blues singer who had taught himself throat-singing—as he interacted with Tuvan culture. The brothers weren’t particularly surprised that no one was interested, but neither were they dissuaded. So with little money and a rag-tag crew who wanted to work on the film for nothing, they booked a flight to Tuva.

The central figure in Genghis Blues and the glue that holds the entire project together is Paul Pena. A blues player and singer, he had performed with Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King, and had also written the Steve Miller Band hit, "Jet Airliner." Pena’s roots lay in West Africa, and he loved world music, so it was natural that he would become fascinated by the sounds of throat-singing he heard coming from his short wave radio. Through patience and perseverance, he gathered recordings and taught himself this rare art. When a throat-singer named Kongar-ol Ondar visited the United States, he invited Pena to Tuva. Miraculously, the Belic brothers’ desire to make a film about Tuva and Pena’s desire to travel there coincided.

Most of the film centers on the ups and downs of the trip, including Pena’s involvement in the throat-singing competition, a visit to the neighboring countryside, and several bizarre happenings that almost bring the trip to an end. Through it all, the viewer is focused on Pena and his interaction with the Tuvan culture. Both his talent and gregarious nature quickly endure him to the local people who nickname him, "Earthquake," because his deep, vibrant singing is said to shake the ground. He receives various honors (including a sacrificial sheep feast) and becomes close friends with Ondar. By the trip’s end, Pena has become far more than a tourist; he has immersed himself into another culture and become part of it.

The film finally becomes a commentary—though never overtly—about two different cultures. One, in which a talented musician is treated as a valuable part of society, receiving respect that boarders on hero worship; the other, where he lives in a run-down neighborhood, pretty much cut off from society. One feels that Pena, given the choice, would have preferred to remain in Tuva with his new friends. But the choice never emerges. Even though Pena must return to his meager existence, the viewer is left with images of his improbable, though triumphant journey. Genghis Blues, which won an audience award at Sundance, is a very warm and human film. It should be appreciated by anyone who is fascinated by other cultures or who loves world music. *

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


Roko Belic—Director/Editor/Cinematographer/Producer/Screenwriter

Adrian Belic—Cinematographer/Producer

*More information about Genghis Blues is available at www.genghisblues.com.

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