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Originally published August 3, 2013 at 2:40 PM | Page modified August 3, 2013 at 7:35 PM

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Kongar-ol Ondar, throat singer, dies at 51

Kongar-ol Ondar was a superstar in Tuva — “like John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Michael Jordan kind of rolled into one,” in the words of “Genghis Blues,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about throat singing in which he figures prominently.

The New York Times

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Kongar-ol Ondar, an internationally renowned master of Tuvan throat singing, the Central Asian vocal art in which a singer produces two or more notes simultaneously — and which to the uninitiated sounds like the bewitching, remarkably harmonious marriage of a vacuum cleaner and a bumblebee — died July 25 in Kyzyl, Tuva’s capital. He was 51.

The cause was complications after emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage, said Sean Quirk, a longtime friend.

A region in southern Siberia just north of Mongolia, Tuva was an independent country from 1921 until 1944, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. The region has a population of about 300,000 and is now part of the Russian Federation.

Small, round and beatific, Mr. Ondar was a superstar in Tuva — “like John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Michael Jordan kind of rolled into one,” in the words of “Genghis Blues,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about throat singing, in which he figures prominently.

His reach extended far beyond the region. He performed throughout Europe and the United States, including at the Japan Society in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

He made a memorable appearance, in full traditional regalia, on “Late Show With David Letterman”; sang at three rose parades in Pasadena, Calif.; and carried the torch through Georgia for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Known for his captivating stage presence, he was nicknamed “the Groovin’ Tuvan” by the Western musicians with whom he played.

His gregarious renown — he was also a former member of the Tuvan parliament — was all the more noteworthy in light of his gritty past. As a boy, he experienced domestic violence firsthand. As a youth, he spent nights alone in the subzero Tuvan winter. As a young man, he languished in Soviet prisons for a crime he did not commit.

“When people see him in his beautiful clothing and hear him sing in this incredible, refined style, you just assume that this guy has it all together: It’s a performance of confidence and courage and beauty,” Roko Belic, director of “Genghis Blues,” said in an interview Thursday. “But the truth is, his youth was very troubled.”

Belic’s documentary chronicles the obsession of a blind American blues singer, Paul Pena, with Tuvan throat singing; Pena’s successful efforts to master the art on his own; his travels in Tuva, where he wins a prestigious musical competition in 1995; and his abiding friendship with Mr. Ondar.

On the film’s soundtrack album, released in 2000, the two men meld their diverse musical traditions. Over the years, Mr. Ondar also performed or recorded with Frank Zappa, the Kronos Quartet, Willie Nelson, Mickey Hart and the banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.

Pena died in 2005, at 55.

Mr. Ondar, through his recording, performance and teaching of classic Tuvan throat singing, helped revitalize a tradition that had been largely extinguished during the Soviet era.

Throat singing, also called overtone singing, is practiced in only a few parts of the world, mostly in Asia. The Tuvan variety, known as khoomei, is the most famous.

Whenever someone sings a note, the column of air in the throat vibrates, producing a fundamental tone (the note’s basic pitch) and a series of higher pitches: the overtones.

In conventional singing, the overtones are largely inaudible, manifesting themselves as timbre. In throat singing, through careful manipulation of the mouth and throat, a vocalist can render certain overtones audible, resulting in two, three and even four pitches sounding at a time.

Properly sung, khoomei sounds as though the singer has ingested a set of bagpipes, with a low drone and a high melody issuing simultaneously from the same mouth.

Khoomei lyrics, in Tuvan (an Altaic language in the same family as Turkish), deal with nature, horses and love.

“We’re imitating what’s around us: the birds, the mountains, the snow, the rivers,” Mr. Ondar told The New York Times in 1999. “We sing sad songs when we reveal what’s in our soul. We sing about love. Without love, what is life?”

Information on Mr. Ondar’s survivors could not be confirmed.

His other recordings include “Echoes of Tuva” and “Back Tuva Future,” a world-music album that includes the numbers “Tuva Groove” and “Little Yurt on the Prairie.”

Mr. Ondar, who was named a People’s Artist of Tuva and a National Artist of Russia, gave command performances before the three men — Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev — who have held the Russian presidency since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 1994, singing for Yeltsin, he experienced a moment of panic.

“Suddenly Boris Nikolayevich jumps off the chair and runs up to me,” Mr. Ondar said in a 2012 interview, which appears in English translation on the website Tuva Online. “I am not a big guy, and there was this big president hanging over me.”

But Yeltsin, it transpired, wanted only to peer into his mouth. He was looking for a hidden device, which, he felt certain, was letting Mr. Ondar make those remarkable sounds.

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