Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tuvan singer Kongar Ol Ondar, RIP

I missed this news when it came out but Ондар Коңгар-оол, Kongar-Ol Ondar died in July. He was 51.

I'd heard of Tuvan throat singers from geek friends who knew that Richard Feynman, the eccentric bongo-playing physics professor and godfather of the atomic bomb, had always wanted to go to the (then) forbidden land of Tuva in Outer, or at least to the north of, Mongolia to see for himself the singers who could make such otherwordly tones as they sang. (In fact, there's a book about this.) Feynman sadly died just before receiving permission to travel to the Soviet region, but Caltech and associated friends continued the connection and eventually brought singer Kongar-Ol Ondar over to the US to ride a horse in the Rose Parade in LA in 1993. He followed that up with a concert at Caltech, which I attended - and so apparently did Matt Groening, who brought Ondar to Frank Zappa's attention and apparently spawned a tremendous friendship. 

When I was at the concert I assumed I was watching a little old wizened folk singer from a dead or dying tradition, the last man on his feet in a tradition wilting in a post-Soviet depression. I was wrong - he was only thirty, just a bit sunburned and aged from the elements. In fact I believe I spied a number of young ladies competing for his attention, and over the next few years, with the release of  the movie featuring Paul PenaGenghis Blues, I saw that the tradition was far from dying and Tuvans have a lot more going on than triangular stamps

The music is oddly listenable to a westerner. It sometimes seems that all nomads play the blues. Robert Plant may have pinpointed the Tuaregs or some similar North African people as the source of the blues, but there's no doubt that Tuvan music has similarities.


RIP Mr. Ondar. 

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