What do Richard Feynman, Willie Nelson, Frank Zappa and Boris Yeltsin have in common?
The answer was embodied in a radiant, round-faced Siberian singer named Kongar-ol Ondar, whose voice was unlike any in the Western world.
Ondar was a master of throat singing, a vocal style native to his small Russian republic of Tuva. He mesmerized audiences with his ability to produce two or more notes simultaneously – a low, steady drone overlaid with higher-pitched tones that to the unaccustomed ear sounded like a radio gone haywire.
His talent was so extraordinary that when he sang for Yeltsin in 1994, the Russian leader peered into his mouth to see if a hidden device was making the astonishing sounds.
The maestro’s fame spread to the West, where he recorded Tuvan music with Zappa and Nelson. They probably never would have heard of Ondar if not for Feynman, the legendary Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose obsession with faraway Tuva set off the chain of events that helped make Ondar a world music star.
Ondar died July 25 at a hospital in the Tuvan capital of Kyzyl after surgery for a brain hemorrhage, said his friend, Sean Quirk. He was 51.
Ondar appeared in three Rose Parades in Pasadena, Calif., performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Kennedy Center in Washington, collaborated with Ry Cooder and the Kronos Quartet, and was a guest on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
Ondar was a national icon in his homeland, where he started a throat-singing academy and was a member of parliament. The “Liberace of Tuvan music,” as Dartmouth College ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin once called him, he played a major role in popularizing the Central Asian vocal art in the West. “More than any other Tuvan,” Levin wrote in 2006, “Ondar has emplanted throat-singing in the sphere of American popular culture.”