What do Richard Feynman, Willie Nelson, Frank Zappa and Boris Yeltsin have in common?
The answer was embodied in a radiant, round-faced Siberian singer named Kongar-ol Ondar, whose voice was unlike any in the western world.
Ondar was a master of throat singing, a vocal style native to his small Russian republic of Tuva. He mesmerized audiences with his ability to produce two or more notes simultaneously—a low, steady drone overlaid with higher pitched tones that to the unaccustomed ear sounded like a radio gone haywire.
His talent was so extraordinary that when he sang for Yeltsin in 1994 the Russian leader peered into his mouth to see if a hidden device was making the astonishing sounds.
The maestro’s fame spread to the West, where he recorded Tuvan music with Zappa and Nelson. They likely never would have heard of Ondar if not for Feynman, the legendary Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose obsession with faraway Tuva set off the chain of events that helped make Ondar a world music star.
Ondar died July 25 in a hospital in the Tuvan capital of Kyzyl after surgery for a brain hemorrhage, said his friend, Sean Quirk. He was 51.
Ondar appeared in three Rose Parades in Pasadena, performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Kennedy Center in Washington, collaborated with Ry Cooder and the Kronos Quartet, and was a guest on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
He also was featured in “Genghis Blues,” a 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary by brothers Adrian and Roko Belic that traced his friendship with a blind African American blues artist and self-taught throat singer named Paul Pena.
“People had the bizarre sense that they understood everything Kongar-ol was saying even though he was not singing in English,” Roko Belic said last week. “He could communicate in expression and song and touch people in a very deep way.”
Ondar was a national icon in his homeland, where he started a throat-singing academy and was a member of Parliament. The “Liberace of Tuvan music,” as Dartmouth College ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin once called him, he played a major role in popularizing the Central Asian vocal art in the West. “More than any other Tuvan,” Levin wrote in 2006, “Ondar has emplanted throat-singing in the sphere of American popular culture.”
Throat singing developed among the nomadic herders of Central Asia whose close relationship with nature led them to musically mimic sounds like the rush of a river or the wind whistling over the steppes.
It is accomplished by a deft manipulation of the vocal cords and the structures of the mouth, including the lips, tongue and jaw, to isolate the different pitches that everyone produces but few can discern, and then, like a human bagpipe, combine them harmonically. The unusual approach was virtually unknown in the West before the late 1980s.
Born in 1962 in the western Tuva village of Iyme, Ondar was exposed to throat singing by listening to village elders as a boy. “He spent many evenings in the camps of nomadic herders. They would drink a little alcohol and then the old guys would start to sing,” Belic said. “It captivated him.”
He started throat singing as a teenager but encountered many obstacles before he could make it his profession.
He never knew his father and was often beaten by his stepfather. In the 1980s he was twice thrown into prison, the first time for fighting and the second for a stabbing. In a 2012 interview for the website Tuva Online, he described brutal conditions, including being ordered by guards to pour 30 buckets of water on the freezing prison floor during the extreme Siberian winter and then wipe the floor dry. He had no shoes and caught pneumonia.
He said in the interview that he was unfairly blamed in both crimes, the second of which caused him to serve a term of more than four years.
While incarcerated, he continued to practice singing. After his release he devoted himself to music and in 1992 won an international throat-singing contest, which brought invitations to perform in Europe and the United States.
His American connection was Ralph Leighton, who had schemed for years with his friend Feynman to travel to Tuva, an independent country until it was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Feynman’s fascination with all things Tuvan had begun with the exotic Tuvan postage stamps that caught his eye as a boy. In 1977 he and Leighton launched a decade-long quest to visit Tuva, a difficult proposition in the Soviet era.
Feynman died of cancer in 1988 shortly before the official letter of invitation from Tuvan cultural officials arrived, but Leighton made the trip and chronicled the adventure in a book, “Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman’s Last Journey” (2000). He met Ondar on his second trip, in 1991, and two years later arranged for the singer to perform in the 1993 Rose Parade.
Ondar, resplendent in traditional costume, sang while riding a white horse down Colorado Boulevard with two fellow throat singers, but “he was the rock star of the whole group,” recalled Leighton, who walked alongside him. When the singer heard parade-goers shout a Tuvan greeting “he’d steer his horse right over and practically take it into the crowd,” Leighton said. “The guys in the white suits were going nuts.”
After the parade Ondar gave a concert at Caltech attended by cartoonist Matt Groening, who excitedly called his friend Zappa, the iconoclastic rocker with a deep interest in international folk music. Ondar wound up at Zappa’s house to demonstrate the unusual singing style and the two formed “an enormous connection,” Zappa’s widow, Gail, told The Times last week.
Before Zappa died in 1993 he recorded Ondar jamming with blues musician Johnny “Guitar” Watson Jr. and the Irish band the Chieftains. The recording was never released, but a sample was recently posted on zappa.com.
Ondar “expresses great joy when he plays,” said Robert Kraft, the former president of 20th Century Fox’s music division, who several years ago was inspired by Feynman’s legacy to start a club called the Tuvan Dining Society.
At a 2011 gathering of the society, Kraft brought a surprise guest – Ondar.
“Kongar-ol asked me if I had a guitar. I had a beautiful guitar that had been played by James Taylor at one point,” Kraft recalled. “He starts making a sound on the guitar it doesn’t ordinarily make, like a droning sound. Then he started to make that sound in his throat which is almost inconceivable: Out of one person comes two notes. It’s an old-fashioned word but I’d say ‘enchanting’ is what it was. He turned his whole body into an instrument. It was just damn cool.”