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Famous Like Me > Composer > P > Paul Pena

Profile of Paul Pena on Famous Like Me

Name: Paul Pena  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 26th January 1950
Place of Birth: Hyannis, Massachusetts, USA
Profession: Composer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia
Paul Pena on the cover of his album New Train

Paul Pena (January 26, 1950 - October 1, 2005) was a multi-genre singer, pianist, and guitarist, who performed Mississippi Delta blues, jazz, flamenco, folk, rock and roll and Tuvan throat-singing.

Early years

Pena was born in Hyannis, Massachusetts. His grandparents were from the islands of Brava and Fogo in the Cape Verde islands off the western coast of Africa, and emigrated to the United States in 1919. Pena spoke Capeverdean Crioulo with his family while growing up. His grandfather Francisco Pena, and father Joaquim "Jack" Pena were both professional musicians, and taught Paul to play Cape Verdean music, including Morna. Pena performed professionally with his father, including a summer spent in Spain and Portugal, where he studied flamenco music.

Pena was born with congenital glaucoma. He attended the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts from the age of 5, and graduated in 1967. He then attended Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Pena was completely blind by the time he was 20.

Musical career

In February 1969 Pena's band played for a week at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opening twice for both Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and The Grateful Dead.. Pena performed in the Contemporary Composer's Workshop at the Newport Folk Festival the same year. He also played in the T-Bone Walker Blues Band during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including an appearance in the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1972. He played bass guitar and provided backup vocals on Bonnie Raitt's debut album.

After moving to San Francisco in 1971, Pena called the Grateful Dead office, which helped find him work. He opened for Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at the Keystone in Berkeley and other area clubs many times over the course of the next three years. Pena said of Keystone owner Freddie Herrera, "His idea of an audition was for me to come and open up for Garcia and Saunders. That went on for some time. Whenever he would have somebody, not knowing who would open, he would call me."

Pena's debut album was the self-titled Paul Pena and released by Capitol Records in 1972. His followup album New Train was recorded in 1973 by Bearsville Records and was produced by Ben Sidran (keyboardist for the Steve Miller Band). New Train featured Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders, and The Persuasions. Albert Grossman, owner of Bearsville Records, stopped release of the record after a dispute with Pena.

Ben Sidran gave an unreleased copy of New Train to musician Steve Miller, who recorded a song from that album called "Jet Airliner" with the Steve Miller Band for the 1977 album Book of Dreams. The "Jet Airliner" single went to #8 on the charts. Pena's primary source of income in his later years were royalties from that single.

Pena temporarily suspended his musical career to care for his wife, Babe, who was suffering from kidney failure She died in 1991, which affected him deeply.

New Train was finally released in 2000, 27 years after it was recorded. Another song from New Train, called "Gonna Move," has been covered by both Susan Tedeschi on her 2002 album Wait for Me, and by the Derek Trucks Band on their 2004 album Live at Georgia Theatre.

Throat Singing

While searching for a Korean language lesson on shortwave radio on December 29, 1984, Pena was intrigued by an example of Tuvan throat-singing he heard on a Radio Moscow broadcast. Seven years later he found a Tuvan record at a local record store called Tuva: Voices From the Center of Asia, and listened to it 'continuously'.. Based on that record and extended experimentation, he was able to teach himself the vocal techniques called Khoomei, Sygyt and Kargyraa:

After playing the CD continuously for several months and driving many of my friends away by making weird noises while experimenting with my voice, 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 — especially Charlie Patton, Tommy McClennan, and Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett.

Pena also taught himself Tuvan. There are no Tuvan to English translation dictionaries, so Pena used two dictionaries: a Tuvan to Russian and Russian to English. He used a device called an Optacon to scan the pages and convert the printed words into tactile sensations he could read with his finger.

Pena attended a performance of Tuvan throat-singing at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco on February 6, 1993. He performed an impromptu Tuvan song in the kargyraa style, which impressed famous Tuvan throatsinger Kongar-ol Ondar. Ondar invited Pena to sing in the second international Khoomei Symposium in 1995 in Kyzyl, Tuva. Pena travelled to Tuva and was the first westerner to compete in the Symposium. He placed first in the Kargyraa contest and also won the "audience favorite" category.

Tuvans affectionately call him "Cher Shimjer" (Earthquake), because of the deepness of his voice. Pena said "My voice is lower than most Tuvans. They have a style that makes your voice lower. When I use that, there's a slow song when I hit a note that's four white keys from the left of the piano."

The 1999 film Genghis Blues documented Pena's journey to Tuva. It won the 1999 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for a Documentary. It was also nominated for an Academy Award in 2000 in the Documentary Feature category.

Health issues

In 1997 Pena was severely injured after his bedroom caught fire. He suffered smoke inhalation and was in a coma for 4 days.

Pena suffered from diabetes. He also waged a long battle with pancreatic illness, and was originally mis-diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He began chemotherapy treatments and doctors gave him six months to live. In 2000 he was properly diagnosed with pancreatitis, a life-threatening illness.

Pena died in his San Francisco, California apartment of complications from diabetes and pancreatitis on October 1, 2005.


Studio Albums

  • Paul Pena, released in 1972 by Capitol Records (currently out of print)
  • New Train, recorded in 1973, released in 2000 by Hybrid Recordings
  • Deep in the Heart of Tuva: Cowboy Music From the Wild East, (various artists) released in 1996 by Ellipsis Arts
  • Genghis Blues, released in 2000 by Six Degrees Records

Live recordings

  • Stormy Monday, released in 1996, the T-Bone Walker Blues Band, by Delta Music. T-Bone Walker on vocals and guitar, Paul Pena on guitar, Recording is credited as 1968; it was most likely recorded in 1971.
  • Fly Walker Airlines, the T-Bone Walker Blues Band, 1972 by Polydor Records. T-Bone Walker guitar and vocals; Paul Pena lead guitar and vocals. Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival June 17 - June 20, 1972
  • Giant Killers, Big Bones and Paul Pena. Recorded live at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley, California in February 1991.


  • Genghis Blues, released in 1999 by Wadi Rum Productions

External Links

  • Pena's official web site
  • Genghis Blues film site
  • Paul Pena page on the Friends of Tuva website
  • Half-hour 2003 interview with Paul Pena by The Human Chorus, in Real Audio format

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Paul Pena