“In an evening’s discourse with Paul Pena, you’re liable to learn these things: he’s been a blues musician for thirty years (and he’s played with B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker). He is blind. He’s a student of Spanish, Hawaiian, Korean, French, and Russian, though he gravitates to “wingwalker,” or endangered, languages. He’s a Cape Verdean-American, born on Cape Cod. And in 1995, he made his way to Tuva, in the high, arid steppes southwest of Siberia, where he trounced contestants from fourteen countries to win his division in UNESCO’s International Throatsinging Competition.
If you live anywhere within earshot of NPR, you’ve probably heard a few minutes’ worth of Tuvan throatsinging. It can sound something like a gale wind blowing over the top of a steamship’s funnel, accompanied by the oscillating moan of a European ambulance siren, or like a vacuum cleaner/pennywhistle duet. Most throat music is overtone music, in which one voice provides drone or harmonics and another the melody, both emanating from a solo vocalist. As a formal musical style, throatsinging is integral to traditional Tuvan culture; almost predictably, it’s an endangered form in its own land. But the technique isn’t confined to northern Central Asia; given a world full of people with music in their heads and time on their hands, varieties of overtone singing were certain to be heard elsewhere. Such as in the Mississippi Delta, the source of Paul Pena’s first taste of throat music.”
From Tuva to Tupelo
An American bluesman takes throatsinging home to Central Asia.
By Allison Levin and James Donnelly
(Whole Earth Summer 1997)