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Remembering The People's Throat Singer Of Tuva

Kongar-Ol Ondar at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Genghis Blues was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. (Getty Images. )

The technique known as throat singing is an ancient style still practiced in Tuva, a small republic between Siberia and Mongolia's Gobi desert. Traditionally, it was practiced by herders.

In 1995, Kongar-Ol Ondar won a U.N.-sponsored international festival of throat stinging, and was honored by his nation with the title People's Throat Singer of Tuva. He performed around the world and collaborated with Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Mickey Hart, Willie Nelson, Randy Scruggs and others. He was also featured in the 1999 film Genghis Blues. Ondar died July 25 from complications after a brain hemorrhage. He was 51.

In 1999, Ondar demonstrated his singing for Fresh Air host Terry Gross. Because he didn't speak English, Back Tuva Future co-producer Ralph Leighton joined Ondar in the studio to translate.

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Earlier this week, we were sorry to learn of the death of Kongar-Ol Ondar, an internationally renowned Tuvan throat singer and a superstar in his own country. He died July 25th at the age of 51 from complications after a brain hemorrhage.

The first time I heard him on FRESH AIR, I went out and bought every CD of his that I could find. He was known as Ondar, and he sounded like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KONGAR-OL ONDAR: (Singing in foreign language)

BIANCULLI: The technique - known as throat singing - is an ancient style still practiced in Tuva - a small republic between Siberia and Mongolia's Gobi desert. Traditionally, it was practiced by herders.

Ondar won a U.N.-sponsored international festival of throat singing and was honored by his nation with a title: People's Throat Singer of Tuva. He performed around the world and collaborated with Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Mickey Hart, Willie Nelson, Randy Scruggs and others. He was also featured in the 1999 film "Genghis Blues."

In 1999, Ondar demonstrated his singing for Terry Gross. Because he didn't speak English, with Ondar in the studio was Ralph Leighton, who co-produced Ondar's CD, "Back Tuva Future." He told Terry how Ondar learned throat singing.

RALPH LEIGHTON: When he was a child, he would visit the Yurt villages where his relatives herded their animals. And in the evening they would sit around the fire, and he heard a particular uncle singing in this way. And through hearing this over and over, Ondar said that this type of singing got into his blood.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's different kinds of Tuvan and throat singing. And I was wondering if we could ask Ondar to perform. You know, to kind of demonstrate those styles for us. And in part, because I think it's so hard for us Westerners to imagine making those sounds. They're so different from the kind of singing that Westerners do. So demonstration would be great. Can we start with a style called; I think I'm pronouncing it right, Khoomei?

LEIGHTON: Sure. You could think of them as high, medium and low if you want. I mean they're just arbitrary words, really. The Khoomei style is actually a three note style; you're starting right at the top you. And what you can listen for in this is a drone note that's going to be a constant note. And then you'll hear a melody much higher that is moving around up in the registers where one normally whistles but it's really a harmonic. And then the third note, if you really concentrate, you can hear a rhythmic syncopation suggesting riding on horseback and that's an octave above the low notes. So you're going to get three notes at once in the Khoomei style.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHOOMEI STYLE OF SINGING)

ONDAR: (Singing Khoomei Style)

GROSS: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Ondar, thank you very much for that performance.

ONDAR: (Foreign language spoken)

GROSS: Ralph, can you explain at all how this is done technically?

LEIGHTON: I can try, but I would like to point out that in Tuva, the culture encourages this. The culture encourages people to sing in this way, producing several notes at the same time, so children are able to pick it up. You know, children over here could pick it up if the culture around them encouraged it. I observed this in my own son. When the Tuvan throat singers would come through town, in a matter of a couple of weeks, you know, two, three-year-old kid is starting to make overtones with formal instructions, it's just that he's around it. So if you ask Ondar how he does it, he says I just do it. But when I try to learn it that I have to think about what I'm doing and in this case, you just starts out a little bit like the Wolf Man Jack. That's the first thing you have to do is tighten your throat. And then for this particular Khoomei style, you make a kind of a ooh sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF OOH SOUND)

RALPH LEIGHTON: That's about as far as I've gotten in about five years.

(LAUGHTER)

LEIGHTON: It's a lot of fun. And, in fact, a lot of fun is also in developing your hearing. So you could listen to a CD of throat singing over and over and you'll hear more and more as you study it.

GROSS: More and more of those overtones?

LEIGHTON: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's get to another style of Tuvan throat singing. And this is called Sygyt.

LEIGHTON: Sure. Sygyt is the highest style and this one is on the CD "Two Lands, One Tribe." It's the introduction to a song that Ondar sings with the American Indian singer-songwriter Bill Miller. And this one has special significance to me because last fall in the newspapers, there was a report from a Russian geneticist was going around Siberia looking for similarities between Siberian peoples and American Indian tribes. And the highest correlation - 70 percent - was found in Western Tuva where Ondar comes from. So...

ONDAR: Seventy-five percent.

LEIGHTON: OK, 75 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

LEIGHTON: See, Ondar speaks more English than he will admit to. So in Ondar's view, the American Indians are a lost tribe of Tuvans. And this is the style and the song that Ondar sang to Bill Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ONDAR: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: That's wonderful. Wow. You know, I can't help but wonder what that does to the throat. Like how much of the singing is actually in the throat. Like, in Western singing, singers are encouraged to get the voice out of the throat and higher into the head so it just resonates on the bones and doesn't hurt the throat. Does this hurt the throat, this kind of singing?

LEIGHTON: Not so much, but I should say Ondar's face turned completely red. It was like he was choking himself a little bit voluntarily. They restrict the air passage through the throat. It's like holding your breath and just letting out the tiniest bit of air. And he does get headaches sometimes but this may be related to his general high blood pressure.

There's a lot of mystery to this. There's a folklore that in Tuva throat singers die early, but this hasn't been backed up scientifically. It is very, very strenuous, that's for sure. His neck muscles are extremely strong. And you see this blood vessel on the side of his neck practically popping out when he does this because the key is you've got to tighten up your throat to make a narrow, narrow little slit through which the tone comes out.

And then your mouth makes the overtones. A little bit like when you're playing a Jew's harp. That's...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LEIGHTON: ... a somewhat way of managing overtones.

GROSS: Is there any improvisation in the singing that Ondar is doing? Or are these songs that are passed down?

LEIGHTON: They are songs that are passed down, but what will happen is there's a lyrical line where he'll say, you know, (singing) I don't know if it'll come out or not but I'll just give it my best shot. Ahoo. (speaking) And then he takes off. And then the rest of the line where the harmonics come in, that's all improvised. He says when he sings that he takes off and flies.

GROSS: Well, Ralph Leighton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And Ondar, let me thank you again. I wish we could've spoken. I wish I could speak Tuvan so we could've communicated more, but your music was extraordinary and I thank you very much for performing it.

ONDAR: (Speaking foreign language)

LEIGHTON: (Speaking foreign language)

ONDAR: OK. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Ondar and Ralph Leighton with Terry Gross in 1999. Their collaboration on CD is called "Back Tuva Future." Ondar died last month at age 51. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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