8/8/17 – Kongar‐ol Ondar & Paul “Earthquake” Pena “Genghis Blues” (1996)

A truly unique album, Genghis Blues is the soundtrack to the documentary of the same name, the story of blind Blues muscian Paul Pena and his travels to Tuva because of his interest in Tuvan throat singing. Pena trades songs back and forth with Kongar-ol Ondar, and occasionally they’ll play together. I actually heard this soundtrack first before ever knowing it was a documentary, and I can’t wait to watch it. I love the tagline on the album “From the steppes of Central Asia to the streets of San Francisco” – that truly puts into perspective how wild of a combination this is. It strangely works very well, even though the two genres are very different, especially when Pena brings in a more Rock-heavy Blues into the mix. Both the Blues and the Folk music of the Tuva seem to bend towards each other in the collaboration, or that could be just the impression you get after seeing them so close to each other.

Genghis Blues opens with What You Talkin’ About?, a complete mix of the two styles of music and it just works perfectly. Both the very low drones and the high pitched whines of the Tuvan singing match this perfectly, and Pena tries his hand at Tuvan singing to great effect – like gravel rumbling through mud. Gonna Move picks up the pace with a danceable Rock song, catchy and charming throughout, this lightens up the album a lot. Kaldak Hamar (The Other Side of the Mountain) is a uniquely Tuvan blues song, sung entirely by Kongal-al Ondar.

Eshten Charlyyry Berge (It’s Hard to Lose a Friend) is a lovely dedication by Paul Pena to the Blues musicians that have inspired him over the years, and the recent Tuvan musicians too. It’s followed up by the heartbreaking Kongurey (Where Has My Country Gone?). I wish I had the translation for this one, because Ondar’s voice is so haunting and expressive that it’s moving. That’s nothing compared to the saddest song on the album by a country mile – Center of Asia. Here Pena speaks plainly about his feeling of loneliness even though he’s surrounded by loved ones. Line after line are punches to the gut and I get teared up every time I listen to this song:
“Here I sit, middle of Asia, feel like I wanna cry
I can’t find a way to say what I need and why”
“It’s such a hard life when you’re stupid, such a hard life when you’re blind”
“I ain’t robbed nobody, but it feels like doin’ time”

Tuva Farewell is a lovely send off to the album and the wonderful meeting of two worlds. It’s got more of a country feel to it but again blends genres perfectly. It’s nearly 9 minutes long but feels like it could be twice or three times that and it wouldn’t feel like it drags. It’s a mix of feelings too, Pena goes over his journey and experiences, and Ondar backs him up wonderfully. The album has some some bonus songs, soundbites of documentary and some live tracks, as nice little addition if you wanted them.
“Me and my friends we will remember all the love we’ve known.
We will tell everybody: In Tuva we’ve found another home!”