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Paul Pena

Spider's Online Diary

4 October, 2005--Paul Pena Remembered

© 2005 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

I regret I must report Paul Pena was found dead of pancreatitis in his apartment by his friend Pancho at about 8 PM, Saturday, October 1st, 2005. I’m still awaiting details. But he’d been told he had three months to live years ago; it was not a big surprise.

Paul was a blind black blues singer-guitarist—both 12-string and electric. He played with Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy, had a long tenure with T-Bone Walker. Steve Miller had a hit with his song “Jet Airliner.”

Paul became the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, GENGHIS BLUES, when in 1995 he traveled to Tuva, a tiny country literally at the exact center of Asia(, and entered, and won, the international Tuvan throat-singing championship.

For reasons obvious to anyone who ever heard his famous Kargyraa Moan, the Tuvan people named Paul “The Earthquake.” The guy who created the voice for Popeye the Sailor was Tuvan. Picture that voice, two octaves lower, singing two notes at once, so loudly that only a special microphone can survive the assault. Awesome is the only word. It sounds a little like a short in the wire that powers the world.

Also without question he was the all-time greatest blues didgeridu player in the world. Interesting man.

I phoned him up less than two weeks ago, having been given his number by his friend Seth Augustus (also a blues singer and Tuvan throat singer). We talked for over two hours. He thanked me for some CDs I had burned him. He told me I was the first person he didn’t already know who had ever complimented his blues didgeridu work. I made him laugh several times. He made me laugh several times. He said he was thinking about maybe cutting some more tunes. I got to thank him, with my personal mouth, for all the inspiration I have drawn over the years from his courage and artistry. Dumb luck I got to.

If you haven’t seen GENGHIS BLUES, look for the DVD. It’s amazing. Outside the capital (Kyzyl, pronounced “Kyzyl”), there is no property in Tuva. Your home is where your animals have stopped today. The great physicist Richard Feynman dearly wished to visit Tuva, and never managed it; it was then inside something impenetrable called a USSR. A whole book was written about his efforts by his friend Ralph Leighton, TUVA OR BUST, which became a terrrific documentary of its own. When Paul got there, he dedicated his prize-winning performance to Feynman.

I happened to flip on the TV this evening, exactly 24 hours after Paul Pena was found dead. THE WEST WING came on. In its opening precredit sequence, Jimmy Smits hits the campaign trail as Senator Matt Santos. The background music used for the entire sequence was Steve Miller's famous recording of Paul's song "Jet Airliner." I wept like a baby.

He was one of the greatest blues singers of our time, and also one of the best guitarists, on 12-string or electric. Likewise he was the greatest Tuvan throat-singer in the West (Seth Augustus is, now) AND the best blues didgeridu player in the universe. I told him that on the phone, a week and a half ago, and he laughed and laughed. He'd have laughed just as hard, I think, if he'd known he would hit national network TV again within 24 hours of his death.

The Earthquake may have stopped rumbling for the moment...but they never really do go away for good, do they? Ask a Tuvan shaman, not me.

How many bluesmen do you suppose have ever been mourned in Kyzyl?

You can hear Paul’s own version of “Jet Airliner” on his brilliant CD NEW TRAIN, released in 2000 through the efforts of his friends. It is produced by the great Ben Sidran (responsible for two of the best Georgie Fame albums ever), and features Sidran and veterans Harvey Brooks on bass and Gary Malabar on drums; guest musicians include Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Merle Saunders on keyboards, Arthur Adams on guitar and Dave Woodford on sax. Amazon lists it at Here is a sample track of Paul soloing on Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.”

And I cannot recommend too highly the soundtrack album for GENGHIS BLUES by Paul and his buddy Kondar-ol Ondar, who brought him to Tuva. Amazon has it at Here is a sample of the Kargyraa Moan that won Paul the 1995 Tuvan throat singing championship.

And just as good is Seth Augustus’s stunning solo album of blues and Tuvan throat singing, INCARNATION BLUES. Amazon is not hip to him, so you’ll have to visit to order it; you won’t regret it.