The Friendship of the Music: A review for Genghis Blues

The world as we know is full of inspirations, surprises and other amazing things with all its diversity. This diversity is its people who vary from the highlanders in the Andes, to the arctic Eskimos, from city dwellers of enormous metropolitan areas to Tuareg people in the Saharan desert. The greatest inspiration that is maybe music, a common thing that all different cultures in the world share. The inspiration for Paul Pena, a renowned jazz musician from the United States, was a practice of music from the nomadic people in the Central Asian Altai mountains. Called khoomei locally, this is a style of throat-singing in which the performer produces multiple tones simultaneously making a unique melody. As interesting as how it sounds is the journey and friendship formed when Paul Pena wanted to know better about what he heard on radio.

Khoomei, otherwise called overtone singing, is practiced by the nomadic people in Mongolia, Chinese Inner Mongolia and Russian Siberian republics like Tuva and Khakassia. It’s believed that khoomei was originated from nomadic herdsmen trying to emulate sounds of mountains, rivers, sand and wild animals. Mongolian nomads have a very different lifestyle which have great impact on khoomei. Mongolian plateau consists of steppes and Gobi desert that last thousands of kilometers where one may not find people for days. Altai ranges have steep mountains raising over the clouds. Herding domestic animals in the arid steppes and hunting games in enormous mountains can last days and sometimes months without seeing home. In such geography and condition, wilderness can be friend of people. Culturally tied to Mongolia, Tuva is a republic in Russian Federation. Tuva was an independent country in the first half of the 20-th century [1]. Afterwards it was incorporated into Russia. The people in Tuva share  lots of cultural elements with Mongolians.

Paul Pena, an American jazz singer accidentally catches khoomei on the radio, when he was surprised by what he was hearing. Excited, he goes to a local music store to look up what he has just listened where he finds out about khoomei performed by Tuvan artists. He wants to go further and make some studies. Apparently he gets along with an organization called Friends of Tuva which is a friendly community that gathers information about Tuva. Friends of Tuva was formed by Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman and friends [2]. After performing khoomei unofficially in a Tuvan event in America, Paul Pena was invited to Tuva by Kongar-Ool Ondar who is a throat-singing master in Tuva. After informing with letters, just after the USSR was split, the group of friends travel to Tuva in a very long trip. They get there to be welcomed very friendly by the Tuvan people and meet Kongar-Ool Ondar. The group get along very nicely with local people thus establishing friendships with the people. Furthermore, having learnt khoomei before going to Tuva, Paul Pena wins Tuvan national throat-singing competition called Kargyrgaa [3]. Paul Pena and Kongar-Ool Ondar perform famous jazz music and Tuvan music together with big smiles on both of their faces. The friendship was there to grow and last rest of the following years.

The world is a big... big place. There are thousands of different ethnic groups and hundreds of different cultures which can not be easily percieved by each other. But inspirations are always there to be found by some medium. In “Genghis Blues”, the music was the medium and it connected different cultures to create friendships among them.  It can be best summarized by Paul Pena in his letter which states, “Kongar-Ool and I have been working in the hope of promoting better understanding between people of different nationalities, races, beliefs, languages, and cultural and economic systems. I believe that in this work there can be found evidence that such understanding and cooperation can be realized.” [3]

  1. World at War timelines. http://www.schudak.de/timelines/tannutuva1911-1944.html retrieved Jan 03, 2012
  2. Friends of Tuva website. Frequently asked questions: http://www.fotuva.org/faq/part_1.html retrieved Jan 03, 2012
  3. A personal letter by Paul Pena in 1994. http://www.fotuva.org/gb/paul.html retrieved Jan 03, 2012

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