Many fascinating stories have been written about Genghis Blues, whose win of Sundance in 1999 is already an adequate affirmation to its editing mastery and storyline rawness. The whirlwind story reminds me of the many trips I have taken in many forgotten corners of the world. The legend of two dudes carrying two camcorders and running up a Sundance from Tuva has certainly set primal example for many of us fellow filmmakers. Sobbing through the apparent camcorder picture quality, I want to commentate on a journey of salvage. In fact, I feel my pen is not heavy enough to clarify the depth of this minidocumentary, whose profoundness is self-manifesting. My feminine pen fails bleakly like the dried ash on a piece of pale wall facing the downsizing sun in name of hormone, camaraderie, and artisanat.
Pressing with the overwhelming throat-singing of Alash Hem (The Alash River) and bizarre orange-yellow-green flash, Genghis Bluesstarts with a narrative by its protagonist Paul Pena. In a series of rudimentary yet fascinating montage, we come to understand Pena’s life. A blind minority American bluesman, Pena had a rather difficult life entering into adulthood and trying to make space for his talent in the American market. Achieving certain success to an underwhelmed degree, he had to live through the pain of losing his wife, who succumbed to kidney failure in 1991. He stumbled across Tuvan khoomei while searching for a Korean language course, and he started practicing khoomei. Maybe you start asking me, what is Tuva? Tuva is this subordinate state within Russian Federation by the border of Mongolia. The state is small yet proud, as the land inherits the regal ambition of Genghis Khan, like all Mongol-descent would embrace.
The story then proceeds to Pena’s finding and his preparation and eventual trip to Tuva. Happening just 6 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trip from America to Tuva might make it a Marco Polo’s search of 20thcentury. To showcase the music inquisition of Pena on Tuvan singing and his own musical production, the documentary mainly uses eye-level shot to bring in the paralleling narratives from various other people such as music producer, record shop owner, etc. The documentary shifts narratives with a string of images, newspaper cut, in-flight footage, and carefully voids absolutely no redundant second. Then, Pena landed in Tuva’s capital Kyzyl and met his host, Tuvan throat-singing musician, Kongar-ol Ondar. Pena performed his own throat-singing at the second international Khoomei Symposium and received flooding support. The film features Pena’s preparation and performance, and the traditions and habits of Tuvans to satisfy audience’s exotic-hunting appetite.
In an age without drones, the Belic brothers showcased the land of Genghis Khan with the neighbourhood recording intimacy. In between the eye-level shooting of Kyzyl mountains, the Alash river, endless and ownerless grassland, we see Pena had new instrument learnt, new friends met, lamb liver tasted (lamb slaughtered with a pinch over artery). Most importantly, a minority black American living weakly in San Francisco found respects and friends in Tuva. Tuvans enjoyed Pena’s craft and gifted him the name Cher Shimjer (Чер шимчээр), earthquake, for his deep voice. In Kyzyl, there was certainly no pedestrian that came to ask direction and instead stole money from the blind man. Instead, Kongar-ol Ondar and Tuvans opened their heart to help Pena and the crew when the crew fell sick, which people had suspected of shaman curse.
Paul Pena’s trip had to end, cutting short in reality, as he lost some of his diabetes pills. The sick musician had to waive goodbye to Tuva and to a crowd that respects him. Pena cried. Back to San Francisco, there was not many things he found sanctuary except for the little record shop by the corner of his apartment, where he could easily walk to and found reminiscence of the Tuvan spirit.
Kongar-ol Ondar performed later in the United States and worldwide for his khoomei and Tuvan music. Paul Pena also continued his music career. Having fought a long battle against diabetes and pancreatic disease, Paul Pena died in 2005 in San Francisco. Kongar-ol Ondar died in 2013 in Kyzyl.
The documentary had no fancy retouch or filter but only fine editing. Kongar-ol Ondar and Paul Pena’s soul-searching music is the film of the film projector and the eventual memory of the movie. Like many Mongolian / pan Mongol-influenced music, the tune embraced seasoned khoomei and weeping sound of morin quur. This relates me to a string of other Mongolian and Mongolian-Chinese artists such as Tengri and Yilalt (of Hanggai Band), who have also coarsely sung about the dreamy free land by the name of hometown.
The vast socio-economic structure has always puzzled me; while seeing Pena’s unachieved life in America and his brief honeymoon in Tuva, this could only pose one soulful question. Why Paul Pena had not become an Albert King, Muddy Waters, or Willie Johnson? Paul Pena mentioned about his frustration over “bureaucracy”, yet the exact notion of “bureaucracy” is unknown. From his life struggles, there are disputes with human connection, competition, longtime sickness, pains, loved one’s passing, and the unfavourable tide of capital and society over material over soul.
For Paul Pena and for Genghis Blues, for the long-gone ferociousness of the Genghis Khan’s offspring, these lines in the song Kongurey may be the best capture:
Aldan chetken chylgymnyngAlazy kaydal, Konggurey?
Aldy kozhuun chonumnyngAaly kaydal, Konggurey? Konggurey?
Where are the sixty horses in my herd?
Where is the hitching post for my horse, Konggurei?
Where are the six regions of my homeland?
Where is the village of my tribe, Kongurei?
Burun shagdan adam-ogben Tyva churttumAldy kozhuun chonum kaydal:…
Azyp chor men, tenip chor menMeeng chonum, kayda siler?
The oldest, rural times of our Tuvan people,
Where are the six regions of my homeland?
I am becoming lost, disconnected, cut off.
My homeland, where have you gone?
I have given a recent talk on Ilkhanateand Timurid, a Mongolian-Persianate empire and Mongol-derived Mongol-Turkic-Persianate empire in 13thcentury to 15thcentury in Iran, which prolonged my peep into the Mongolian conquest into a gaze. I was touched for that sense of missing vastness in the Mongolian folklore and music. Since I have never been to Mongol lands, I continued to fantasize on the subject. I see stories written on Ulaanbaatar, propelled the popularity of the song Ulaanbaatar’s Night, coperformed by Chinese singer Tan Weiwei and Hanggai band. It seems modern construction devoured the carefree grassland and gradually dimmed the precious homeland into a desert.
Here aresong links of other Mongolian / Mongolian-Chinese / artists / band that have performed on Mongol-relating content. In addition, the free link to Genghis Blues on a Chinese website (virus-free on legit website, so worry not). Subtitle in Chinese but worry not as narrative is English. Foreign narrative has English subtitles.
Link for Genghis Blues: https://www.bilibili.com/video/av31209946/
Kongar-ol Ondar’s performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVyyhHFKI8E
Tengri’s glass-shattering performance on Paradise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2mvc0miJ-w
Ylalt’s performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flYlREY2xdg
Hanggai band’s performance on Cycle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvW8JEuIo58
Tan Weiwei’s Ulaanbaatar’s Night, co-performed with Hanggai band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkVSunxpJls