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American musician hailed as unlikely throat-singing icon

The American musician Paul Pena, who has died aged 55, became an unlikely icon when the award-winning documentary Genghis Blues, charting his quest to sing in the Central Asian republic of Tuva, was hailed as a popular success.

Though he sold very few albums, Pena was admired internationally for his courage and dignity in the face of terrible reverses. He lost his sight by the age of 20, and his last years were dogged by debilitating illness, which meant that he was rarely able to make music, a hard blow for a gentle man who enjoyed communicating with his new-found fans. Pena was born in Massachusetts, to parents who had immigrated to the US from the Cape Verde islands. At birth, he was found to be suffering from congenital glaucoma. He attended the Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts, and went on to Clark University, also in his home state.

From childhood, Penna displayed perfect pitch and great musical ability. His grandfather and father, both professional musicians, taught him to play the Cape Verdean blues ballad form known as morna. He performed with his father and studied flamenco music in Spain and Portugal.

Back in the US, Pena became enamoured of blues music and began working with T-Bone Walker (Pena's guitar and singing can be heard on Walker's 1972 album Fly Walker Airlines). He played bass and provided backing vocals for Bonnie Raitt's debut album in 1971, and, in 1972, released his eponymous solo album on Capitol. The Village Voice celebrated his "rolling virtuoso guitar and vocal soulfulness", yet the album achieved little commercially.

Pena moved to San Francisco and began opening concerts for the Grateful Dead. Signed to Bearsville Records by Albert Goldman, he recorded his second album, New Train, but a disagreement with the irascible Goldman shelved the project. Rock musician Steve Miller heard the tracks and covered Pena's unreleased song Jet Airliner, thereby scoring a huge US hit in 1977.

Pena spent increasing periods of time caring for his wife Babe, who was suffering from kidney failure (and died in 1991). But he continued to immerse himself in international sounds and idioms. While searching for a Korean language lesson on shortwave radio in 1984, he was intrigued by an example of Tuvan throat-singing on Radio Moscow. Seven years later, he found a Tuvan CD. Based on that record and extended experimentation, he was able to teach himself Tuvan vocal techniques.

"After playing the CD continuously for several months and driving many of my friends away by making weird noises while experimenting with my voice," Pena told The Friends Of Tuva website, "I finally learned a few of the basic techniques of this fascinating group of vocal styles by remembering the styles of some of the blues greats of the past."

Pena attended a performance of Tuvan throat-singing at the Asian art museum in San Francisco in 1993. He performed an impromptu Tuvan song which so impressed throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar that he invited Pena to the second international Khoomei symposium in 1995 in Kyzyl, Tuva. Pena, the first westerner to compete, was placed first in the Kargyraa contest and won the "audience favourite" category. Tuvans affectionately called him Cher Shimjer (Earthquake) because of the deepness of his voice. Genghis Blues documented his trip and won the 1999 Sundance film festival audience award for a documentary; it was nominated for an Academy award in 2000.

In 1997, Pena was severely injured after his bedroom caught fire. Suffering from diabetes, he was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent chemotherapy. In 2000, he was correctly diagnosed with pancreatitis. On the rare occasions he felt well enough to record, he cut morna, blues and Tuvan tracks. These recordings make up his 2000 album Genghis Blues and led to New Train being released to acclaim the same year.

The Guardian
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