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Hearts in Their Throats

Kongar-ool Ondar. Photo by Sean Quirk Tuva’s throat-singing musicians have hit the United States. A talk with the country’s superstar.

Imagine a human bagpipe—a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistlelike melody. For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally—by the same person, at the same time. It sounds impossible, but such a style of singing exists. It’s called throat singing, or overtone singing, and it’s reached its highest state of refinement in the tiny Central Asian republic of Tuva, situated between Mongolia and Siberia (and now part of the Russian Federation). In Tuva, there is not just one style of throat singing but many, each with a distinct set of sounds that is at once primal and curiously modern—evoking everything from the Aboriginal didgeridoo to Jamaican dancehall music.

The most celebrated practitioner of this ancient art today is Kongar-ol Ondar, 43—a singer, teacher and former member of the Tuvan Parliament. He first attracted international attention when he toured the United States, Europe and Asia with the Tuva Ensemble in the early 1990s. Since then, he has recorded a dozen albums, such as “Echoes of Tuva” and “Back Tuva Future,” with the likes of the late rock legend Frank Zappa, the classical Kronos Quartet and jazz-bluegrass star Béla Fleck, who dubbed Ondar the “Groovin’ Tuvan.” A documentary, “Genghis Blues,” about Ondar’s collaboration with American blues musician Paul Pena was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. Ondar came to the Oscars ceremony and even appeared on the David Letterman show.

Ondar manages to prove that throat singing is far more than a party trick; it can actually be high-quality music. On tour in the U.S., he picked up the nickname “K.O.”—not only for his initials, but also his ability to knock people out with his songs. Soundman Bob Russo recalls Ondar’s concert with Fleck in 2000. “I had such high expectations that I was sure I would be disappointed by the performance,” he says. “Instead I had to peel myself off the walls.”

Ondar is currently touring the United States with a group of young Tuvan throat singers called Alash, for which is he artistic director. (Brought here under the Open World Leaders program of the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Arts, the group will be in the country through the end of March.) The ensemble is among the first of a new, postcommunist generation of Tuvan musicians who are bringing unprecedented sophistication to traditional Tuvan music. The group has been drawing overflow crowds at universities, community arts centers and churches. Less than halfway into its tour, Alash had already sold out of its CDs.

Through interpreters Konstantin Molotilov and Sean Quirk, Ondar spoke at Wesleyan University in Connecticut with NEWSWEEK’s Anne Underwood. Highlights:

On the origins of throat singing: “Our ancestors were nomadic herders and lived so close to the land, they began to mimic the sounds of nature in their song—birds, water, animals. Each style of Tuvan throat singing imitates a different animal or sound. The highest-pitched style is called sygyt, which means whistle. It is like the trilling of birds, such as the nightingale. Xöömei imitates the lowing of cattle, particularly bulls. It is a very strong sound with a lot of strong chords in it. It can produce three and even four notes. Kargyraa, which produces the lowest sound, represents the biggest of our animals, the yak.

“Each of these styles has three or four substyles. A rhythmic embellishment called borbangnadyr can be used with any of them. It’s [a sort of vibrato] like a stream running down hill, rippling over pebbles. Ezengileer is a pulsating effect, like the gallop of a horse, with the sound of the whip knocking against metal stirrups.”

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