Throat-Singin’ the Blues

Ten years ago, as an Evanston high school student, Roko Belic saw a Nova documentary called “The Last Journey of a Genius,” about bongo-playing, wisecracking, Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman’s scientific accomplishments were impressive–he was a member of the team that developed the first A-bomb and he exposed the defect that had caused the space shuttle Challenger to explode in 1986–but what stuck with Belic was the physicist’s final failure: for the last 11 years of his life, he’d tried, unsuccessfully, to get to the isolated Siberian republic of Tuva. Belic, too, became fascinated with Tuva, and over the next decade, his own obsession with getting there would determine the course of his career–his first film, Genghis Blues, a documentary that should do for Tuvan throat singing what Buena Vista Social Club did for vintage Cuban music, opens Friday at the Music Box.

In 1994, after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a degree in studio art, Belic arranged a trip to Russia with hopes of extending his travels to Tuva. Before he left, he mustered the nerve to call Ralph Leighton. Leighton, who had played bongos with Feynman and helped him write his autobiographical best-sellers Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, had also been the physicist’s coconspirator in his Tuvan quest. In his own 1992 book, Tuva or Bust!, Leighton explains that their interest was sparked by a dinner conversation in 1977. Feynman asked, “What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?” which is how he knew it from the colorful, odd-shaped postage stamps the country had issued in the 30s. Leighton had no answer, so they consulted Encyclopaedia Britannica, where they discovered that the capital of Tuva was Kyzyl. “A place that’s spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!” Feynman said.

The two painstakingly researched the North Dakota-sized country–information about which had become extremely scarce after it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944–and eventually formed a loose organization called Friends of Tuva, which still exists (see But geography and politics combined to prevent them from actually visiting: the cold war was still going strong, and Feynman’s background made him particularly suspect.

Finally, in 1985, Leighton saw an opportunity in the form of a Soviet archaeological exhibit in Sweden. He and Feynman volunteered to arrange for the show to come to the U.S., partly in hopes of gaining entree to Tuva, and it worked–on February 15, 1988, the Soviet government issued them permission to come. Unfortunately, a month before the papers arrived in the U.S., Feynman died of cancer. Leighton made the trip alone that spring.

“When I called him I wasn’t even sure if he was going to talk to me,” says Belic. But Leighton not only welcomed his questions–he asked him a favor: while he was there, could he shoot footage of the first rock concert in Tuva? Belic had been experimenting with film for years, but had no professional experience. “I was like, ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ but inside I was like, ‘Hell, yeah, I’m going to make sure I go there.’ As soon as I got off the phone I ordered a video camera with my credit card.”

In the course of their conversation, Leighton also told Belic the story of Paul Pena, a blind San Francisco blues singer of Cape Verdean descent who had encountered khoomei–the multiphonic throat singing for which Tuva is best known in this country–on shortwave radio in the mid-80s. Amazingly, Pena, who played with John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker in the late 60s and early 70s and wrote the Steve Miller hit “Jet Airliner,” had taught himself the technique. After a Bay Area concert by Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar in 1993, Pena had approached him and demonstrated what he’d learned; the Tuvan was so impressed he’d invited Pena to come participate in a prestigious triennial singing contest back home. Friends of Tuva was funding his upcoming trip.

Leighton said that “if his friend at the BBC couldn’t shoot the documentary [about Pena’s trip]–and I realized that this was Christopher Sykes, who made the documentary that inspired me in the first place–then maybe I could,” says Belic. Excited, he called his brother, Adrian, who’s two years older and was working as a cinematographer in the Middle East. Adrian had also seen the Nova documentary and agreed that this was the chance of a lifetime. While Roko made his way from Moscow to Kyzyl, spending a week on the Trans-Siberian Express and 12 hours on a bus, Adrian came home and persuaded Leighton to let them have the Pena project. Upon Roko’s return, the brothers moved to San Francisco and went to work. They used the footage from Roko’s first trip as a trailer and wrote more than 30 grant applications, but raised only $200 and ended up financing Genghis Blues by credit card. “We’re not just broke,” says Adrian. “We’re financing debt.”

The movie nobody wanted to pay for was the audience choice for best documentary at Sundance this year, and in fact Hollywood’s finest screenwriters couldn’t have imagined a better story. As he travels the countryside outside Kyzyl, Pena–who taught himself Tuvan by translating words first into Russian and then into English using an electronic braille device that scans one letter at a time–charms the socks off the locals with his skill, his natural charisma, and his fusion of traditional Tuvan music with the blues. The throaty growl of Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf can be heard in Pena’s chosen khoomei style, kargyraa, which uses a booming undertone a full octave below the fundamental tone; the Tuvans call him “Earthquake.” There’s suspense: just prior to competing, Pena discovers that the piece he plans to sing has fallen into disgrace because its author has recently been sent to jail, and has to improvise a new entry in his rudimentary Tuvan. And there’s drama: shortly after the contest, Pena realizes that he’s running out of antidepressants (he’s been subject to deep bouts of the blues since his wife died of kidney failure in 1991) and one of the crew members, all of whom are brought into the movie as characters, suffers a heart attack.

The Belic brothers spent the next four years completing the film, and it began showing around the U.S. this summer. Unfortunately, just as it opened, Pena, now 49, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “When he told us about it he said that now he’d never be able to get to Cape Verde,” where his grandparents were born, says Roko. As Pena undergoes chemotherapy, the brothers are trying to raise money to send him there.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.