Next Score View the next score

    Kongar-ol Ondar, 51; master of a vocal art

    Kongar-ol Ondar played with such artists as Frank Zappa, Paul Pena, and Bela Fleck.
    Ilya Naymushin/Reuters /File 2004
    Kongar-ol Ondar played with such artists as Frank Zappa, Paul Pena, and Bela Fleck.

    NEW YORK — 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 surgery for a brain hemorrhage, said Sean P. Quirk, a longtime friend.

    A region in 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.

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    His reach extended far beyond the region. Mr. Ondar performed across Europe and the United States. 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 Thursday. “But the truth is, his youth was very troubled.”


    Belic’s documentary chronicles the obsession of a blind American blues singer, Paul Pena, with Tuvan throat singing; 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, Willie Nelson, Mickey Hart, and the banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.

    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.

    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 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, 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?”

    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 Quirk, an American who lives in Tuva.

    After a series of freezing nights on his own, young 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,” Belic said. “And it then became a string and then a rope that he could pull himself out of his situation with.”