Biography

Paul Pena (born in Hyannis, Massachusetts, on January 26, 1950; died on October 1, 2005) was an American singer, songwriter and guitarist of Cape Verdean descent. From the first half of his career Pena’s music touched on Delta blues, jazz, morna, flamenco, folk and rock and roll. Pena is probably best-known for writing the song “Jet Airliner,” a major 1977 hit for the Steve Miller Band and a staple of classic rock radio; and for appearing in the 1999 documentary film Genghis Blues, wherein he displayed his abilities in the field of Tuvan throat singing.

Pena was 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, Pena 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 Pena 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. Pena appeared in a talent show, and while in college, performed in coffeehouses in Worcester.

In 1969, Pena 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, New Train, was recorded by Bearsville Records, but not released until 2000.

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.

In 1995, Kongar-ol invited Paul to sing at the second international Khoomei Symposium and contest, held in Tuva’s capital city, Kyzyl. Ralph Leighton and the “Friends of Tuva” sponsored his trip. Paul took first place in the Kargyraa division of the contest and became known as ‘Earthquake’ for his amazingly deep voice. He also won the ‘audience favorite’ award. Filmmakers Adrian and Roko Belic accompanied Paul to Tuva to film the contest and his travels through Tuva, guided by Kongar-ol. Paul and Kongar-ol have also recorded a compact disc called Genghis Blues, which combines American blues singing, Cape Verdian ‘morna,’ and Tuvan Khoomei.

After the release of the film, Genghis Blues, and the CD Sountrack, Paul was named ‘San Francisco’s Tuvan Blues Ambassador’ and July 11, 1999 was declared ‘Paul Pena Day’ by the mayor.

In 2000 he was diagnosed with a pancreatic illness and died of related complications in 2005.

Edited by KeithJones on 11 Oct 2012, 23:35

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