12:22 pm HKT
Aug 23, 2013


The Man Who Brought Tuvan Throat Singing to the World

    • By



Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

Kongar-ol Ondar performing at the 2nd International Festival of World Music in Russia in July 2004.

During his life, Kongar-ol Ondar brought global exposure to the obscure art of Tuvan throat singing through his appearance in an Oscar-nominated documentary and a slew of performances that charmed the West.

Mr. Ondar was a star in his homeland of Tuva, the Russian republic that had for centuries been part of Mongolia and briefly a Manchurian territory until it was annexed by the former Soviet Union. The tiny area in southern Siberia, now part of the Russian federation, is known for two things: the monument near its capital, Kyzyl, marking the geographical center of Asia, and throat singing.

Overtone singing, as the vocalization is more widely known, is found in pockets around the world, but Tuvan throat singing is particularly well-known now, thanks to Mr. Ondar, who died July 25 at the age of 51 after, according to news reports, emergency surgery to treat a brain hemorrhage.

Throat singers manipulate their vocal chords to make audible the overtones of the notes they hit, producing more than one pitch at a time. The harmonic effect is mesmerizing — most first-time listeners are astonished to learn the sound is produced by a human.

Mr. Ondar, on a trip to California with Tuvan singers in the early 1990s, met an American blues singer who had taught himself to throat sing. He encouraged the blind American, Paul Pena, to travel to Tuva for its annual throat-singing symposium.

Mr. Pena made the trip in 1995, along with Roko and Adrian Belic, two American brothers who filmed the unlikely adventure. Their documentary, “Genghis Blues,” was released in 1999 and nominated for an Academy Award the next year for best documentary. (It lost out to “One Day in September,” about the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics.)

Mr. Ondar, who had taken on a role as something of a cultural ambassador for Tuva, attended that red-carpet Oscar ceremony, dressed in his traditional nomadic herder attire, and displayed the natural charisma that shone so brightly in the film.

“Genghis Blues” is explicitly about Mr. Pena’s journey from San Francisco to a land as foreign as any in the 20th century. But once the story leaves the U.S., Mr. Ondar, like an overtone that unexpectedly makes itself an equal part of the harmony, whisks the audience on horseback into the scenic Asian steppe.

Mr. Ondar’s ebullience stands in stark contrast to Mr. Pena’s occasional spasms of depression and panic. He leads with his warm personality and a smile as wide as the Tuvan sky, and when Mr. Pena hits the depths of his sadness, Mr. Ondar brings him back with the one passion both men share: music.

As part of his effort to nurture and spread Tuvan culture, Mr. Ondar performed for a variety of other Western musicians during the 1990s, including Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder, and brought his art to mass media with an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” But his collaboration with Mr. Pena illustrates best the exotic sound of throat singing and the electric connection the two men had.

Roko Belic, who directed “Genghis Blues,” reminisced in an email to the Journal about his experience with the celebrated musician, whom he helped to put on the world-wide stage:

When I heard the news of Kongar-ol’s death it felt is as if a piece of the world had been broken off and lost.  I first got to know him in December 1994, when I knocked on his door at 1 a.m. His friend in America, Ralph Leighton, had given me his address, and being a friend of a friend was all that was needed for Kongar-ol to welcome me like a brother. He woke up his wife and children to meet me and then gave me tea, fed me and made a bed for me.

A couple days later I learned what kind of teacher Kongar-ol was. The temperature was minus 50 degrees centigrade, and he told me we had to go for a drive. We traveled for three hours through a blizzard in his Lada and eventually came upon a farmhouse. Kongar-ol spoke to a woman there, and a few minutes later came out of the house with an 11-year-old boy. On the drive back to Kyzyl, Kongar-ol explained that this boy was a student of his. The boy had not returned to school in Kyzyl after a recent holiday, and that’s why we had to go and retrieve him. I had never seen a teacher so dedicated to his students. I soon learned that this dedication was an expression of Kongar-ol’s devotion to Tuva, its culture and its people.

Every time Kongar-ol performed, whether it was in someone’s living room or in a stadium filled with thousands of people, Kongar-ol gave it his all. Mother Teresa said “Give until it hurts, and then give some more.” Kongar-ol did just that.

Though I am deeply saddened by his passing, my life and the world are profoundly enriched because Kongar-ol lived.



This clip, from the “Genghis Blues” DVD, shows Messrs. Ondar and Pena playing a mashup of American blues and throat singing.