Kongar-ol Ondar, a Master of a Vocal Art, Dies at 51
Allen J. Schaben/The Los Angeles Times
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: August 3, 2013
Kongar-ol Ondar, an internationally renowned master of Tuvan throat singing, the Central Asian vocal art in which a singer produces two or more notes simultaneously — and which to the uninitiated sounds like the bewitching, remarkably harmonious marriage of a vacuum cleaner and a bumblebee — died on July 25 in Kyzyl, Tuva’s capital. He was 51.
The cause was complications after emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage, said Sean P. Quirk, a longtime friend.
A region in southern Siberia just north of Mongolia, Tuva was an independent country from 1921 until 1944, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. The region, which has a population of about 300,000, is now part of the Russian Federation.
Small, round and beatific, Mr. Ondar was a superstar in Tuva — “like John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Michael Jordan kind of rolled into one,” in the words of “Genghis Blues” (1999), an Oscar-nominated documentary about throat singing in which he figures prominently.
His reach extended far beyond the region. Mr. Ondar performed throughout Europe and the United States, including at the Japan Society in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
He made a memorable appearance, in full traditional regalia, on “Late Show With David Letterman”; sang at three Rose Parades in Pasadena, Calif.; and carried the torch through Georgia for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Known for his captivating stage presence, he was nicknamed “the Groovin’ Tuvan” by the Western musicians with whom he played.
Mr. Ondar’s gregarious renown — he was also a former member of the Tuvan parliament — was all the more noteworthy in light of his gritty past. As a boy, he experienced domestic violence firsthand. As a youth, he spent nights alone in the subzero Tuvan winter. As a young man, he languished in Soviet prisons for a crime he did not commit.
“When people see him in his beautiful clothing and hear him sing in this incredible refined style, you just assume that this guy has it all together: it’s a performance of confidence and courage and beauty,” Roko Belic, the director of “Genghis Blues,” said in an interview on Thursday. “But the truth is, his youth was very troubled.”
Mr. Belic’s documentary chronicles the obsession of a blind American blues singer, Paul Pena, with Tuvan throat singing; Mr. Pena’s successful efforts to master the art on his own; his travels in Tuva, where he wins a prestigious musical competition in 1995; and his abiding friendship with Mr. Ondar.
On the film’s soundtrack album, released in 2000, the two men meld their diverse musical traditions. Over the years, Mr. Ondar also performed or recorded with Frank Zappa, the Kronos Quartet, Willie Nelson, Mickey Hart and the banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.
At the same time, through his recording, performance and teaching of classic Tuvan throat singing, he helped revitalize a tradition that had been largely extinguished during the Soviet era.
“The whole Tuvan culture was disappearing because it was outmoded, shall we say, under the Soviet system,” Ralph Leighton, the author of “Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman’s Last Journey,” said on Thursday. “They were supposed to build the new Modern Soviet Man, and therefore places like Tuva, which practices shamanism and Buddhism, were seen as backward.”
Published in 1991, Mr. Leighton’s book is a nonfiction account of his attempt, with his friend Mr. Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to travel to Tuva, whose curious triangular postage stamps had enchanted Mr. Feynman as a boy. Mr. Feynman died in 1988, before they could make the trip; Mr. Leighton later journeyed there on his behalf.
Throat singing, also called overtone singing, is practiced in only a few parts of the world, mostly in Asia. The Tuvan variety, known as khoomei, is the most famous of all.
Whenever someone sings a note, the column of air in the throat vibrates, producing both a fundamental tone (the note’s basic pitch) and a series of higher pitches — the overtones.
In conventional singing, the overtones are largely inaudible, manifesting themselves as timbre. In throat singing, through careful manipulation of the mouth and throat, a vocalist can render certain overtones audible, resulting in two, three and even four pitches sounding at a time.
Properly sung, khoomei sounds as though the singer has ingested a set of bagpipes, with a low drone and a high melody issuing simultaneously from the same mouth.
Khoomei lyrics, in Tuvan (an Altaic language in the same family as Turkish), range over nature, horses and love.
“We’re imitating what’s around us, the birds, the mountains, the snow, the rivers,” Mr. Ondar told The New York Times in 1999. “We sing sad songs, when we reveal what’s in our soul. We sing about love. Without love, what is life?”
Mr. Ondar typically performed in traditional dress: peaked silk hat, flowing silk robe and boots with upturned toes. So attired, he accompanied Mr. Belic to the Academy Awards ceremony in 2000.
“He actually sang for Joan Rivers on the red carpet,” Mr. Belic recalled. “Joan noticed his amazing outfit, and her interest in fashion compelled her to bring him over, and he immediately sang in his traditional style.”
Kongar-ol Ondar was born in Iyme, in western Tuva, in 1962. He was reared partly by a stepfather who, he said, beat him often.
“If a cow would get lost or something, Kongar-ol wouldn’t come home all night, because if he came home without the cow he’d catch hell,” said Mr. Quirk, an American who has lived in Tuva for a decade and who manages the Tuvan musical group Alash. “He’d be staying out all night in a haystack in 40-below weather.”
After a series of freezing nights on his own, Kongar-ol made his way to the yurts of his grandparents and uncles. There, he was exposed to khoomei.
“That became a thread that he could hold onto,” Mr. Belic said. “And it then became a string and then a rope that he could pull himself out of his situation with.”
Mr. Ondar began singing professionally as a young man and also worked as a Russian language teacher. Then in 1985, he attended a party at which a fight broke out and a guest was cut with a broken bottle. When the police arrived, they learned that the young man who had wielded the bottle was the son of a high Communist Party official. Mr. Ondar took the fall.
He served about four years in brutal Soviet penal colonies in Tuva. His skill in singing khoomei accorded him a measure of safety from prison officials and fellow inmates.
In 1992, after his release, Mr. Ondar won Tuva’s international throat singing competition — the same contest Mr. Pena would win three years later.
Mr. Pena died in 2005, at 55. Information on Mr. Ondar’s survivors could not be confirmed.
Mr. Ondar’s other recordings include “Echoes of Tuva” and “Back Tuva Future,” a world music album that includes the numbers “Tuva Groove” and “Little Yurt on the Prairie.”
Mr. Ondar, who was named a People’s Artist of Tuva and a National Artist of Russia, gave command performances before the three men — Boris N. Yeltsin, Vladimir V. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev — who have held the Russian presidency since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In 1994, singing for Mr. Yeltsin, he experienced a moment of panic.
“Suddenly Boris Nikolayevich jumps off the chair and runs up to me,” Mr. Ondar said in a 2012 interview, which appears in English translation on the Web site Tuva Online. “I am not a big guy, and there was this big president hanging over me.”
But Mr. Yeltsin, it transpired, wanted only to peer into his mouth. He was looking for a hidden device of some kind, which, he felt certain, was letting Mr. Ondar make those remarkable sounds.