Monday, October 24, 2005

Paul Pena 1950 - 2005

I'm sad to report that Paul passed away Saturday October 1, 2005 in the early evening at his apartment in San Francisco. He'd been through a long battle with Pancreatitis and Diabetes. This is a huge loss for all of us.

Thanks to the documentary film, Genghis Blues, Paul Pena is now known and appreciated throughout the world for his amazing accomplishments as a musician, particularly for having taught himself the techniques of traditional Tuvan singing.

Paul Pena was born on January 26, 1950 in Hyannis, MA, the oldest child of Jack and Virginia Pena. His grandparents came from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. He was born with congenital glaucoma. When he was five, he began school at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown (a suburb of Boston). He graduated in 1967 and then attended Clark University in Worcester, MA.

As a young child, Paul soon showed his talent for music. His mother heard him picking out melodies and chords on a baby grand piano that had been found in the town dump and brought home, 'as a toy that a blind child might enjoy.' He developed 'perfect pitch.' Soon Paul was studying the piano, guitar, upright bass, violin and 'a little trumpet.' He played and sang popular jazz and Cape Verdian ballads with his father, a professional jazz musician, and also sang in his school choruses. Paul appeared in a talent show, and while in college, performed in coffeehouses in Worcester.

In 1969, Paul played in the Newport Folk Festival 'in the Contemporary Composer's Workshop with such people as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson.' In 1971, Paul moved to San Francisco and recorded his first marketed record for Capital Records, which was released in 1973.

In his musical career Paul played with many of the blues greats, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, 'Big Bones,' and T. Bone Walker. His song, 'Jet Airliner,' recorded by the Steve Miller Band, was a hit in the 1970s. Another album, recorded by Bearsville Records, was never released.

During this period Paul's wife, Babe, suffered kidney failure. Paul gave up his musical career at that point in order to take care of her. She died in 1991. He suffered greatly from her loss.

Paul first heard a fragment of harmonic singing on a shortwave Radio Moscow broadcast on December 29, 1984 and he was so struck by it, he spent almost eight years trying to track down its source. In 1991 he was finally able to locate a recording of Tuvan music and taught himself the vocal techniques known as 'Khoomei, Sygyt, and Kargyraa'. In addition, he learned a good bit of the Tuvan language using English-Russian and Russian-Tuvan dictionaries and an obsolete 'Opticon' scanning device which translates text into sensations. In 1993, Paul attended a concert sponsored by the Friends of Tuva organization and met Kongar-ol Ondar after the performance. Paul gave Kongar-ol an impromptu demonstration--and astonished him with his talent and mastery of traditional Tuvan singing. The two men formed a strong friendship along with their musical collaboration.

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