The odyssey of "Genghis Blues" | page 1, 2, 3, 4

The next year, 1993, Roko was at college when he learned that a group of Tuvan throat-singers were visiting the United States. "I'd traveled around the world thinking I'd end up in Tuva, and now Tuva was coming to me," he laughs. He attended the packed performance in Santa Barbara and approached one of the singers afterwards. They smiled at each other intently, but Roko's Russian proved too elementary for a real conversation.

Several nights earlier, the Tuvans had played a sold-out performance in San Francisco, and the same singer had ventured out into the lobby to perform for the overflow crowd. In between songs, he was startled when a large African-American man with a head of wild, curly hair and a long cane came near him and, unannounced, belted out a classic Tuvan song that had not been performed that evening. 

Paul Pena, who had played with such blues greats as B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Bonnie Raitt, and who had written the Steve Miller Band's hit song "Jet Airliner," was at that time living in relative poverty and obscurity in San Francisco. Blind from birth, Pena had never found America to be a friendly place for people outside the mainstream. When his wife died, he fell into a depression and spent many nights listening to his short-wave radio.

Once while turning the dial, he was barely able to make out an odd harmonic sound unlike any he'd ever heard. At first he thought it must be an instrument, something akin to a didgeridoo, but he eventually realized it was a single voice producing two notes. He set off to teach himself the art, despite a dearth of recordings or information. Now, nine years later, the Tuvan performer stared at him in amazement: "You must come to Tuva in two years for our national throat singing competition!" 

The man who organized the Tuvan singers tour and who would soon try to help Paul get to the competition was Ralph Leighton, Richard Feynman's friend and would-be Tuva travel partner. Roko contacted Leighton soon after college graduation to tell him of his and Adrian's desire to go to Tuva and make a film. Not surprisingly, the older man was only mildly interested in the 22-year-old's plans.

He told him about Paul, but cautioned that the BBC had already shown interest in filming the trip. When Roko said he might try to go to Tuva that December via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Leighton said he knew of no other Westerners who had made the journey in winter. Three months later Roko e-mailed him from Siberia saying that the train ride had been great and he was taking a bus to Kyzyl the next day. Leighton's interest was piqued. 

Arriving at midnight in the freezing capital, Roko headed towards the first address Leighton had given him, the home of the throat singing legend Kongar-ol Ondar. He knocked on the door of the one-bedroom apartment in downtown Kyzyl, a Soviet-designed town complete with a 50-foot-high statue of Lenin. Immediately, Roko recognized the man as the performer he'd tried talking to in Santa Barbara. Despite the late hour, Kongar-ol offered him a big smile and a place to sleep. Roko stayed in Tuva for five weeks, incurring frostbite from the 50-below-zero weather, but falling further in love with the place of his childhood dreams. 

Back in San Francisco, Adrian was already trying to drum up support for the project. As soon as he got confirmation that the BBC was not doing a Tuva film, the brothers approached Paul. He agreed without hesitation. "We had five months before Paul's trip," says Roko of the planning that ensued. "I wrote 35 grant applications and got 35 rejections." Until a week before leaving, they continued to hope for some backing that would allow them to shoot in film. They ended up taking video equipment instead.

The trip that ensued -- including a jumpy ride in an Aeroflot plane with its "escape rope," madcap road trips with Kongar-ol through Tuva's stunning countryside, Paul's crowd-pleasing performances at the competition and the series of mishaps that befell the travel party partway through -- is the heart of "Genghis Blues," a film that is as much about the spirit of people to cross cultural and personal boundaries as it is about music.

While the film focuses on the five-week trip to Tuva, the actual story is arguably a 16-year odyssey: Paul's 11 years of infatuation with Tuva leading up to it, followed by three years of editing and another two of marketing. "We always knew we did this film not only because it was a compelling story," says Adrian, "but also because it sounded like a lot more fun than graduate school." In the end, they've gotten a hell of an education. 

When they finished the film in June 1998, one of the first things they did was enter it in film festival competitions, hoping to gain a distributor in the process. Repeatedly, they were told that they would never make it to a major festival like Sundance. "Who wants to see a film about a blind guy no one has ever heard of?" went the argument. So when the opportunity came to fill out the entry form for the granddaddy of independent film festivals, they checked "35 mm." 

"Sundance doesn't accept video, which is what we had," Adrian explains. "The choices were 35 or 16 millimeter. We were just psyched to see the title of our film next to '35 mm'!"

It was a joke until the call came. Sundance wanted to see a print of the film. A 35-millimeter print. For years, they'd had time but no money. Suddenly, they had neither. 

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