My wife told me while I’m writing this article that she hasn’t heard that many songs by Kongar-ool Ondar in a day since her childhood in Tuva.
Kongar-ool Borisovich Ondar (Ондар Коңгар-оол Борис оглу, in Russian/Tuvan, 4 December 1962 – 25 July 2013) was an influential Tuvan musician of the 20th century and one of the first to been known abroad.
In his career he collaborated to vary projects with western musicians such Frank Zappa, Paul Pena and the band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. He helped founding khoomei school in Kyzyl and has even been awarded for academy award for best documentary in 1999.
In addition to khoomei, he mastered two other styles of throat singing, sygyt and kargyraa, as well as classical singing and dance, and Tuvan folk instruments as igil (similar to a small viola) and the doshpuluur (similar to a banjo) .
Born in 1962 in Ijme (western Tuva) he was named by his grandfather after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in history to orbit in space in 1961. Because Gagarin-ool sounded too long he was then shortened to Gagar-ool.
The life of Kongar-ol Ondar has been characterized by various events. Energetic and charismatic has lived in own skin the harsh life of the Siberia in the 1980s, serving few years in jail due to unfortunate events, the career in Tuva and abroad. In this article we will cover the last decades which made him famous.
In the summer of 1988, Kongar-ool took part in the throat singing festival hosted in Kyzyl’s main theater. Because of his past, the local committee decided to excluded him by playing between the main singers and to instead give him a small space at the end of the festival. This was enough to rise the attention of the audience.
Following this event he was appointed as teacher of khoomei class at the art school of Kyzyl. In this period he worked at close contact with musicians such as Sergey Ondar, Anatoli Koolar, Ivan Saryglar.
Together they founded the Tuva Ensemble and started touring around Tuva. The people living in the villages were moved by their research for the traditional folk elements of Tuvan music and in many provided them missing part of traditional songs or Tuvan tools to use during their performances.
1992 S.D. Orzhak was nominated president of republic of Tuva and publicly recognized six khoomeiji as representatives of Tuvan folk culture. Between them: Kongar-ool and the young Kaigal-ool Jhovalyg.
Even though Tuvan language belong to Turkic languages the influence of Mongolian culture is stronger. Part of this culture is shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. After the fall of Soviet Union started a period of opening toward religion and traditions.
In September 1992 the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso came to visit Tuva for a spiritual mission and the Tuvan Ensemble performed in several occasion to welcome the Tibetan Buddhism’s leader.
In 1994 the first president of Russia Boris Yeltsin came to visit Tuva and a big concert was hosted in his honor. The story tells Yeltsin was so surprise of the sound of sygyt sang by Kongar-ol who reached him to check if he was using a whistle.
After the performance the whole Tuvan Ensemble was listed between the Distinguished Artist of Russia after the request of Boris Yeltsin.
Between these years of political transformation of Russia Kongar-ool had the chance to visit many countries Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium starting a period of greater exposure for western countries to Tuvan folk music.
In 1993 during their tour in USA they became very close to the musician Frank Zappa, which in last year of life met him and band several times introducing Koomei sounds to Irish folk, Afghan folk , and American rock & blues.
In this year Kongar-ool got in touch with the blues guitarist and singer Paul Pena beginning a new project entitled Genghis Blues.
The following year, 1994, Paul Pena visited Tuva.The result of the partnership with Paul Pena is the album and documentary entitled Genghis Blues in 1999:
In year 2000 nominated at Oscar Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category featuring the story of the blind blues musician Paul Pena traveling to Tuva, performing Koomei and playing with the folk Tuvan musicians.
Another trip follows, this time in USA where Kongar-ool had the opportunity to perform in front of different audiences this time with the band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. [see also music lesson article].
In 1999 the New York Post included between the 10 best albums of the year the album Back Tuva Future, getting big attention in the USA media.
Back in 1992 Kongar-ool worked as khoomei teacher at the state art school. Between his students Igor Koshkendey, and the young members of Alash.
In the years 2000s the life of Kongar-ool was centered around concerts around the world and Russia, teaching to younger khoomeji and financing several activities.
Kongar-ool died in 2013 in Kyzyl when he was just 51 years old.
He gave a great contribution to Tuvan throat-singing, supporting the development of international bands such as Huun-Huur-Tu or Alash. He is also widely recognized as ambassador of Tuvan culture in the Western world.