Back TUVA Future
In 1989, I accidently embarked on an incredible musical and cultural journey. It all started
innocently enough, watching a PBS documentary about the brilliant and eccentric physicist
Richard Feynman. Feynman's interesting life had recently been ended by cancer and the
show was recapping his accomplishments in physics, his fascination with safecracking, and
his interest in the small forgotten land of Tannu Tuva in central Asia. The narrator mentioned
the ancient art of Tuvan throat-singing, whereby a singer can generate up to four notes at
once, and I rocketed off the couch and hit the VCR Record button just in time to catch some
audio examples. I was obsessed with the recording for months, playing a cassette copy for
all my friends. Even my young kids had heard the tape in the car so much that they were
trying to learn sygyt. (Tuvan term for throat-singing) I tracked down a CD of Tuvan music and
became even more fascinated as I got past the novelty of the vocal sounds and began to focus
on the melodies, instrumental arrangements, and the infectious rhythmic grooves.
I wanted to meet and make music with these amazing guys, but how? They live in one of the most remote places on earth
(between Siberia and Outer Mongolia), and they don't speak English!
One of the albums I was playing on that year was Emmylou Harris' "Cowgirl's Prayer". I had given producer Richard
Bennett a copy of the Tuvan CD, and knowing her eclectic musical taste, he passed it on to Emmylou at the sessions.
Months later, I was surprised to see a newspaper interview with Emmylou in which she mentioned "these amazing
throat-singers from Tuva." I thought it would be fun to let the Tuvans know that Emmylou Harris was now a fan, (although I
wasn't sure how much they knew about American music). I sent a copy of the article with a cover letter to the record
company in New Jersey who had released the CD with the request that they forward it to Tuva. I could only hope that
someone in Tuva could translate it for them.
Instead, they forwarded my package to California, to Ralph Leighton. Ralph had been a close freind of Richard Feynman
and their quest to travel to Tuva had been a joke between them for years. After Feynman's death however, Leighton did go to
Tuva, and even arranged for four Tuvan singers to come perform in California. In honor of Feynman he started "Friends of
Tuva", a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading the word about these fascinating people and their culture. Ralph had
seen the interview with Emmylou Harris and finally understood how she had been introduced to Tuvan music.
So on my birthday, I received a package from "Friends of Tuva". T-shirts, a book, (Tuva or Bust), a CD, etc. And so began
a long friendship with Ralph Leighton. Ralph had also become the unofficial manager of Kongar-ol Ondar, the best known of
the Tuvan singers and champion of the high-pitched "sygyt" style. (the word "sygyt" denotes a particular style, as well as
throat-singing in general) The next time Kongar-ol came to America to perform we made plans to route him home through
Nashville, to spend a few days with me.
Tangential Story- A couple of years before I learned of the Tuvans, a blind blues singer named Paul Pena was listening to
short-wave radio in San Francisco. He tuned in a high piercing sound that he first mistook for radio feedback, until he
noticed that it was pulsing in a rhythm and the pitch was oscillating with a melody. He discovered he was listening to sygyt,
one of the many styles of Tuvan throat-singing. He managed to find a CD of Tuvan music and through countless hours of
vocal experimentation, actually taught himself to throat-sing like the Tuvans.
When Ralph Leighton first brought the Tuvans to the USA, one of their first concerts was in San Francisco. Paul Pena
attended and afterwards had a friend lead him backstage. As soon as he was close enough, he started throat-singing a
Tuvan song which surprised and delighted them to no end. Paul quickly became friends with Kongar-ol Ondar, who was on
that first trip. They later formed a duo called "Genghis Blues", about which an Oscar-nominated documentary was made.
Now, back to the present story-
When Ralph Leighton sent Kongar-ol to Nashville to visit me, he also sent Kongar-ol's wife, who was enjoying her first visit to
America, and bluesman Paul Pena, who had always longed to come to Nashville.
I can't begin to fully describe the strange and hilarious scene at the Nashville airport when I picked up three strangers, two
of whom didn't speak English, and the third one blind. As they stepped off the plane, Kongar-ol was leading Paul, who was
carrying a green trash bag. Inside was a rumpled-up Salvation Army suit of clothes that looked exactly like the suit he was
wearing. I asked if he had any luggage and he held up the bag. "This is it." he replied. I asked, "Do Kongar-ol and his wife
have any bags?" He said "Yea, man, they got all kinds of stuff they're takin' back to Tuva." So we headed off to baggage
claim with me leading the blind leading the Tuvans, and as the conveyor belt came around, I swear they were pulling off
every other bag. And when I say bags, I mean shopping bags, grocery bags, duffel bags, cardboard boxes, suitcases,
shoulder bags, etc. Nine, ten, eleven, and counting. Finally, the "piece de resistance": four steel-belted radial snow tires,
duct-taped together in pairs. Apparently, the Ondars and their extended family share an old truck in Tuva, and tires are all
but impossible to come by. As we pulled the tires off the conveyor, I noticed they were stuffed full of t-shirts, underwear,
sweatshirts, and socks. By now, I also noticed airport security watching all this and was expecting to be pulled into a little
cubicle with a bright light at any minute.
Fortunately, they left us alone. Very fortunately, for as soon as we had dragged the mountain of stuff to my van and gotten
everyone loaded, I noticed "blues man" Paul fiddling with something and because of his blindness, thought I'd pull over and
help him. Turning on the interior light, I saw that it was a strange little pipe he was trying to load and I had to say, "Aw, man,
please don't do that in here, I've got young kids and this is a non-smoking van."
Thus began an incredible week. My family was mourning the death of our nanny, (the day before), and the death of our
dog. In the midst of the funeral and burials, I was introducing the Nashville music community to the guys, and introducing the
Tuvans to life in the South.
Our first stop was a Monday night at Douglas Corner, a night club where my friend Dave Pomeroy was performing. I had
called Dave to set up a surprise performance, and being the adventurous guy that he is, Dave was thoroughly excited about
it. He introduced me and I introduced Paul and Ondar, explaining how they came to be friends and perform together. I
added that this was the first performance by a Tuvan singer in the Southeast. I had hidden the guys outside where no one
would get a glimpse of them. The visual impact of Kongar-ol in his traditional Tuvan robe, hat, turned-up boots, whip, and
doshpuluur (Tuvan banjo), contrasting with Paul's rumpled blues suit and beat-up resonator guitar, was a sight to behold.
They performed two songs and Pomeroy joined them on bass for the third. As soon as they finished, I whisked them out to
the van, almost before the audience could digest what they had witnessed.
Next was the famous Bluebird Cafe a half-hour later, where I had arranged a similar appearance during the set break of
The Bluebloods, a popular blues group of Nashville session players. I tried to talk the band into backing the guys on their
third song, but as I asked each one of them, I could see the reluctance in their eyes. They retreated to the corners of the
room to see how the first songs went, before deciding whether to join in. (It's embarrassing to get stuck onstage with a bad
The Bluebird has no backstage area, so I kept the guys in my van, parked at the front door. Again, I got up and did my
intro, and as I spun this amazing tale of a guy from Siberia who sings multiple notes at once, getting together with a blues
man from California, I could sense a collective skepticism. I realized that they thought I was setting them up for a comedy
bit, where the band might come running out in costumes. I finished the intro and walked to the door to lead them in. There
was a gasp as Kongar-ol strolled onstage, looking like Genghis Khan in all his ceremonial splendor. As he began his solo
piece "Alash Khem", I had the incredible experience of watching the faces in the audience, stunned and frozen as they
realized that this was for real. No one spoke or even looked at one another; they were literally paralyzed. The waitresses and
bartenders froze in place, and my view of the club was just as surreal as their view of the stage.
By the second song, with Paul joining in, folks were starting to glance at each other with a "Can you believe this?" look on
their faces. And by the third song, the Bluebloods had rocketed onstage, to grab their instruments and be a part of this
amazing event. They finished to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, the only one I've ever seen in the Bluebird. As
before, I hurried the guys out to the van and sped off for home, hoping to leave the impression that the whole thing had been
The next day I got a call from a guitarist friend, who had stopped in at Douglas Corner about three hours after we'd been
there. He said the place was still buzzing about the performance, and as he walked through the club he heard folks at every
table talking about it. Someone told him that we had gone to the Bluebird and he drove there, only to find the same scene: a
room full of people buzzing about this strange and wonderful performance. Bluebird owner Amy Kurland told me it was her
favorite show of the year, and when Ondar returned a year later, he performed a solo set there.
As the week progressed, I took Kongar-ol and Paul to the Nashville Network studios to watch a taping of "Music City
Tonight", and a VIP tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. They performed at an elementary school and
Kongar-ol gave a lecture to the Russian students at Vanderbilt University. (He speaks both Tuvan and Russian, which are
very different languages) I took them backstage at the Grand Old Opry where they had their pictures taken with bluegrass
icon Bill Monroe, Hee Haw star Grandpa Jones, and good ol' cajun Jimmy C. Newman.
Some of the funniest moments involved food. The Tuvans like meat, and they like it as close to the original animal as
possible. (They'll eat a big, thick steak, but don't care for hamburger) One day we were running late, they were hungry, and
we happened to be near the best barbecue joint in town, so I decided it was time to expand their horizons. I picked up some
barbecue sandwiches to go, (pulled pork), jumped back in the van, and passed them out. Kongar-ol's face was a study in
disgust as he looked at this chopped-up mess of what used to be a pig, but I noticed that after his second bite there was no
______________________________ Part II - The Record