Tuva groove: It just doesn’t pay to be too parochial. Sure, we enjoy and treasure the "pure" strains of the classic blues singers (and tend to forget that in front of an audience they may have played reels, jigs or any manner of popular music of the day). But musicians — like other creative people — often produce their best work when they press against their boundaries or cross-pollinate with other world musical styles.
Naturally there are pitfalls and stunning failures, but in the long run, stepping out of the box leads to enrichment and growth for most artists. We’ve seen Taj Mahal reach out from his blues core to embrace island music of various stripes, to explore Hindustani music with V.M. Bhatt, and to successfully team up with West African players. Otha Turner, the 93-year-old cane fife legend, recently brought Africa to the Mississippi hill country for his Senegal to Senatobia release. Paul Butterfield’s "East West" was highly developed blues-rock-raga. Charlie Musselwhite, on his inspiration to record with the brilliant Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa, had this to say: "Blues is a feeling. It can go anywhere. It can come from anywhere. When I hear any music with feeling, it’s blues to me."
On the other hand, some cultural expressions are so strange to Western ears as to make us doubt any spark could bridge the gap. Take Tuva as an example. A few years ago you would have been hard pressed to find an American who could tell you who or what Tuva was. That was before groups of Tuvan throat-singers like Huun Huur Tu began releasing CDs and playing dates in this country. And before a particularly charismatic artist named Kongar-ol Ondar toured with ultimate eclecticist Bela Fleck and his group the Flecktones. (Fleck refers to Ondar as "the Groovin’ Tuvan.")
With whatever small notoriety this former Soviet satrapy high in the mountains of Central Asia has achieved, it would certainly seem an unlikely destination for a blind blues singer from San Francisco. Paul Pena (pronounced PEE-nah), however, is not your average singer or average anything else. Confined for the most part to the neighborhood around his apartment by blindness, illness and depression over the death of his wife, a chance encounter with Tuvan throat-singing over short-wave radio led the remarkable Pena to uncover and develop a talent for this alien style.
Paul’s adventures traveling to Tuva for a throat-singing competition is the basis for the delightful film Genghis Blues, in which Pena also sings an improvised blues number about his improbable journey to a delighted Tuvan audience. Catfish Whitey and I were fortunate enough to catch the movie at a university showing earlier this year. I knew right away that I wanted to do a story on Paul and we put our man in the Bay Area, David Feld, on the case. Sadly, in the interim Paul was diagnosed with prostate cancer and has been too ill to travel or do interviews. But we think you will be moved by David’s portrait of this remarkable individual.
Gone Gaga: Given all the time I spend dealing with writing about the blues, it’s been a refreshing change of pace to dig in with the music at our online blues project at Gogaga.com. If you’re just joining us, we’re programming a 24-hour blues channel on the Web, one of 30 music sources under the aegis of Gogaga.com, that’s always just a mouse-click away. You’ll need a fairly speedy ’net connection (56k is OK, DSL is a LOT better) and either RealPlayer or Windows Media Player (links to both of which can be found at the site).
Our emphasis has been on a deep blues sound sprinkled with R&B, gospel, jazz and zydeco. With about 2500 songs and lots more to come, we’re aiming for both diversity and quality, two elements that are far too rare in mainstream radio. We’re about to add special programming like Frank Matheis’ six-part documentary series Origin of the Blues, and we’re looking for work by other producers around the U.S. If you are a seasoned radio veteran with good production skills and are interested in contributing, contact me at email@example.com.
You can go directly to the blues channel following this URL: http://blues.gogaga.com or go to www.gogaga.com to check out all the various channels offered.
Photo oops: Try as we might to get things absolutely right, those evil little glitches somehow still manage to sneak their way into almost every issue. Can it actually be that we’re not perfect? The horror! At any rate, much as we like the photography of David Horwitz, whose work has graced so many copies of the magazine including our last cover, the thumbnail shots of Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King on pages 31 and 33 of the summer edition were actually taken by Dennis Buhi. Take a bow, Dennis.