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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> June 2001 >> Genghis Blues

Genghis Blues

Movie Commentary by Scott Ventura


Scott's Rating:
4 / 5
Times Seen:
Viewing Date:
June 2001
IMDB Name:
Genghis Blues (1999)
Roko Belic
MPAA Rating:

Mysterious Sound

The human voice is capable of a baffling array of sounds. I first heard about Tuvan throat singing when Huun Huur Tu performed at the Eastman School while I was an undergraduate. Sadly, I never made it to the concert. Since then, I've been singing a lot of barbershop, another style that is interested in overtones. When the members of a quartet or chorus match the timbre and vowel of their voices and sing pitches along a harmonic sequence, the result is the production of additional pitches. Although the brain normalizes it to seem like a single pitch, all human speech is a combination of several frequencies, so overtone-producing vocalization is always around us.

Having thought so much about the subject, I was really looking forward to the documentary Genghis Blues, about the journey of a San Francisco blues musician to Tuva, a country that still practices throat singing. As a documentary of the trip, the movie is a success. As anything more than a tease of throat singing, it's a disappointment. The filmmakers focus most of their attention on Paul Pena, whose remarkable, untutored mastery of kargyraa, one of the six throat singing styles, makes him the toast of Tuva. Kongar-ol Ondar met Paul while visiting California, and he encouraged Paul to compete in the throat singing competition in the capitol, Kyzyl.

Paul Pena's story is very interesting, and it is definitely deserving of a documentary. In fact, it's interesting enough to deserve a better documentary than this. Roko Belic apparently has not had time to become an invisible documentarian. Although they are almost never participants in the dialogue, the camera operators are in frame a significant amount of the time. At one point in the concert footage, the focus is equally divided between Paul on the guitar and the operation of a Steadicam JR to capture some low- quality video footage. I should probably be amazed that they had access to such a piece of equipment at all, and thankful that there wasn't much shaky-cam. The editing tends to repeat itself, showing Pena performing some pieces over and over with the setting being the only appreciable difference.

I was annoyed more by the absence of information than I was by the presentation. I can understand predominantly focusing on the two singing styles favored by Pena and Ondar, but the other four aren't even mentioned by name. The movie's introduction includes a motion X-ray of a vocal tract in the act of throat singing, but the footage is never attributed, explained, or used. Equally frustrating, Pena himself doesn't really know how he came to emulate the recordings so well, and nobody else in the entourage is ever educated in the techniques. I can imagine enthralled audience-members going home practicing their sygyt and drumming up (singing up?) interest in Tuvan culture, but the movie doesn't provide anything to encourage such behavior. Those khöömei-wannabes leave the theater knowing only that somebody else intuited it. In another major communication gap, several famous Tuvans, including Huun-Huur-Tu, are barely identified when they appear, if at all. Some are introduced only by name and not by their game. The scant runtime probably dictated information cuts, but I'd think most audiences could stand another ten minutes if it meant they'd be better educated.

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Copyright 2001 by Scott Ventura. All rights reserved.