Kongar-ol Ondar (March 29, 1962 – July 25, 2013) was a master throat singer from the Khemchik River, Tuva. He enjoyed a long and successful career both at home and abroad and was instrumental in the introduction of the art and culture of his homeland to the world beyond its borders.
Ondar was born in 1962 near the Hemchik River in western Tuva, within sight of the ruins of the Chadaana Buddhist Monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1930’s. Ondar’s epic saga would converge around his singular vocal gift to make him Tuva’s musical ambassador to the world. As a child, he was taught the fundamentals of throat-singing by his uncle. “Throat-singing is a tradition of Tuva that is very old,” Ondar recently remarked. “it is inspired by the beautiful landscape of Tuva, which is full of sounds — the windswept open range with grazing livestock, the mountain forests full of birds and animals and the countless streams tumbling out of the mountains onto the open range to form mighty rivers. Our throat-singing has been passed down for countless generations. It is the immortal part of ourselves.
By 1980, after finishing his primary education, Ondar had already begun his career as a professional vocalist, employed by the Tuvan House Of Culture. He later became the MC and featured singer with the popular local group, the Cheleesh Ensemble. In late 1983, Ondar was drafted into the Soviet Navy, which seemed blissfully unaware that its young recruit hailed from an entirely landlocked country. While stationed on Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, he suffered a broken neck while loading hundred pound bags of sugar and, after 45 days in sick bay, was honorably discharged.
Returning to his native land, Ondar studied at the Kyzyl Pedagogical Institute and became a Russian language teacher. The haunting music of his homeland, however, was never far from his heart and mind. “As I am a Tuvan, I believe that throat-singing is in my blood,” asserts Ondar. “When I was a boy, I would go every summer high into the mountains to stay with one of my mother’s uncles. There, in the evenings in the camp, I would hear the old man sing to himself. He would have a few drinks of arak — the local brew made from fermented goat’s milk — and sing two, three or even four notes at once.
Later, at school, I sang and sang and sang, until I got it, too.” It was from such rich recollections and deep cultural roots that Ondar determined to make throat-singing his life. In 1985, he formed the Tuva Ensemble which, defying official displeasure, began performing concerts both in Tuva and in neighboring Soviet republics. By the early ’90s Ondar’s reputation had begun to take on an international scope, first with a series of well-received performances in Europe and then as the winner of the UNESCO-sponsored International Festival of Throat-Singing. A year later, after a hugely successful tour of the Netherlands, the Tuva Ensemble recorded their first album, Tuva: Voices From The Land Of The Eagle (on the independent PAN label). Small wonder that, in 1992, he was honored by his grateful nation with the title of People’s Throat-Singer of Tuva. Ondar’s odyssey had only begun. As word-of-mouth about this remarkable vocal style and its prime practitioner began to spread among a select group of savvy musicians,
Ondar found himself in demand for a diverse range of globe-spanning projects. In 1993 alone, he performed and recorded with The Kronos Quartet, for their album Night Prayers; Ry Cooder, as well as Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead’s Micky Hart, The Chieftains and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Ondar was also a special guest at a command performance in New York City, sharing the stage with a troupe of Tibetan Monks and Japanese avant garde pioneer Kitaro.
In 1994, Ondar joined forces with San Francisco artist Paul “Earthquake” Pena to record a groundbreaking blend of throat-singing and blues, aptly titled Genghis Blues. He subsequently went on tour with Pena, and after returning home, sang for an august audience that included Tuvan leader Sherig-ool Oorzhak and former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, who afterward named Ondar a National Artist Of Russia. It was a far cry from the days when the authorities all but banned throat-singing in the Soviet Empire. Additional accolades, awards and albums followed, including the 1995 release Echoes Of Tuva and appearances at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the Japan Society in New York and the Korea Society Center at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.