It may be somewhat unkind, not to mention late, to reflect upon something that moved me powerfully at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, now sadly over. But here goes. The film was Genghis Blues, made by two young Americans, Adrian and Roko Belic. And I can't get it out of my mind.
Genghis Blues purports to be a documentary but it is actually an intense and entertaining exploration of the human spirit. Any passing resemblance to a serious work of journalism is in the eye of the beholder, certainly not this one. It was a delight to watch, and I've never before seen a documentary that I could describe that way. It tells the tale of Paul Pena, a blind, blues musician from Cape Verde via Boston, and his journey to the heart of Asia. Pena develops an unlikely passion for the deeply eerie throatsinging from the obscure central Asian land of Tuva-the place that spawned Genghis Khan's most respected general and little else in the intervening years. Except for that music. It defies the power of words to describe Tuvan throatsinging save to say that there is no place for a space or a hyphen between those two syllables.
Tuvan throatsingers hold and sustain impossible notes, below their voice boxes. They are able to produces sounds an octave lower or higher than their own voices. It's an impossible thing to imagine without actually hearing the keening, gut-wrenching sounds that these people can produce.
Paul Pena, stuck in a perpetual bluesman's rut and plunged into deep depression by the death of his wife, stumbles onto throatsinging while whirling a shortwave dial one dark night in 1980s San Francisco. He takes to it like a junkie to a new drug, and soon teaches himself Kargyraa, the lowest, most rumbling sounds of the four types of throatsinging. As a man with the blues, he already knew how to hit the low notes. Kargyraa plunges him into musical depths unplumbed by anyone outside of the vast steppes of Tuva.
The film follows Pena on a madcap trip to the Tuvan capital Kyzyl, a place I would challenge even a BBC World Service radio newsreader to pronounce properly without reaching for an encyclopaedia. He meets throatsingers galore, plays the blues and sings Kargyraa. He drinks gallons of fermented mares' milk, and seldom seems to be without a litre bottle of Russian beer in his hand. He bathes in a holy river, and wins a throatsinging contest in the Kargyraa category. A series of misfortunes are dealt with by Pena conducting a shamanic ceremony to cleanse evil spirits from a Tuvan drum.
More mares' milk goes down his throat. And he goes home reluctantly with tears and throatsingers' grief everywhere in evidence. This is one of those films that end so abruptly that the audience can't believe it, doesn't want it to be true, and then sits for all of the credits, hoping that the projectionist has perhaps put on the wrong reel. Unfortunately, Genghis Blues is a finite experience. Let me tell you though, it stays with you for days, possibly much longer.
I rushed home and found a website, genghisblues.com, of course. And I learnt that Paul Pena is gravely ill from pancreatitis and may not recover. He's living in virtual poverty back in San Francisco. Devastation is too mild a word for the way I feel. And I still haven't decided whether I was watching a story of immense human dignity and the common ground that unites diverse cultures, or a tale of Westerners dancing among the exotic of the mystic east, the New Orientalists. Do whatever you can to see this film, and then drop me a line and help me make up my mind. Or else I'll practise my throatsinging in your garden.