Back TUVA Future - Part 2, The Record
After the first visit, Ralph sent me some recordings Kongar-ol had made in a California studio. I
began working with them, experimenting,trying to find some common ground between his world
and mine. Ralph had previously sent me some 20-year-old recordings of Richard Feynman
playing the bongos and chanting, and they fit together pretty well when layered with one of
Kongar-ol's vocal tracks. And so began my attempt to create a new sound from old elements.
Tuvanthroat-singing, centuries old, with Feynman, who had been dead for almost ten years, tied
together with my own keyboards and rhythm loops.
After a few weeks, a song (that later became "Tuva Groove") emerged. Initially, it was
seven minutes and had more sections, but gradually was trimmed down to about four
minutes. (Kongar-ol had wanted a long piece for a dance troupe in Tuva). At the time,
I was also writing string arrangements for an Anita Cochran/Steve Wariner record
produced by my friend (and Warner Bros. President) Jim Ed Norman. I described my Tuvan experiment to him and was
surprised to find out that he was also a Richard Feynman fan. Jim Ed had read several of Feynman's books and was even
working with a physics professor from Vanderbilt Univ. to better understand Feynman's contributions to physics. I gave him a
tape of my "Tuva Groove", and he was excited about it. He told me that if I could get Kongar-ol back to Nashville for a few
days, he'd arrange for us to use the Warner Bros. studio to continue our experiments.
By the time Kongar-ol arrived, we had set up a recording session with Randy Scruggs and Mark Casstevens, another one
with American Indian singer Bill Miller, and yet another with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. We also arranged to have him
perform on the Grand Ole' Opry, and he made history as the first citizen of Russia to do so. At my suggestion, Opry star Bill
Anderson introduced Kongar-ol by making comparisons to American country music. He mentioned that the Tuvans sing
about their sweethearts and their horses. Kongar-ol sings high like Bill Monroe, he plays a banjo like Grandpa Jones, and he
wears flashy clothes like Porter Waggoner. He's singing "country music from another country." By the time Kongar-ol
stepped onto that sacred stage, the audience was primed and ready. He didn't disappoint and received a tremendous
The next day it was back to the studio for more recording. I think that Ondar sang more that week than any week in his life.
By the time he went back to Tuva, we had four multitrack tapes full of performances.
Then came the hard part. For over a year I pored over those tapes, cataloging and editing the best performances. In some
cases some of the instruments were kept, in others only Kongar-ol's vocal was saved. I continued mixing and matching
elements from the sessions with old recordings of Feyman, and glued it all together with my keyboards and sound effects.
In some cases I rearranged traditional Tuvan folk songs, writing new sections as needed. In other cases I used elements and
lines from a performance and composed entirely new pieces. I had Ondar's encouragement to be creative & loose with it,
never worrying about tradition, and instead just trying to achieve a musically satisfying result. After all, Kongar-ol explained to
me that he doesn't sing Tuvan songs the same way his father did, and his father had changed them from the way his
grandfather had sung them. So as he said, "Which one is the tradition?"
As the project continued, Kongar-ol would get to Nashville about once a year and I would play him the songs. I knew when
he really liked a piece as he would ask me to put it on a cassette over and over, until the cassette was filled. This was for him
to take back to Tuva and play at parties & dances. As he said, "In Tuva, we don't measure time by hours, but by days".
Eventually, an album began to take shape. Warner Bros. gave us the green light to finish it and Jim Ed and I (now
co-producers) went back into the studio and brought in a long line of talent to put the finishing touches on the project. We
brought in Willie Nelson, bassist Victor Wooten, guitarist Richard Bennett, string players Kris Wilkinson and David Davidson,
percussionists Kenny Malone and Kirby Shelstad, mandolinist/fiddler Sam Bush, and oboist Marianne Osiel. Bob Tassi,
Declan Young, Tim Roberts and Eric Prestidge were our recording engineers.
When "Back Tuva Future" was released, Kongar-ol came back to the U.S. to help with the promotion of the CD. Ralph took
him to L.A. where he met the folks from WB Records and WB Motion Pictures. He came to Nashville, where he and I
performed with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and did radio interviews. He played some concert dates with Bela Fleck and
the Flecktones and capped off his trip with a performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. I initially wasn't in favor of
his appearing on The Late Show, afraid that Letterman might have fun at his expense, and not speaking English, Kongar-ol
wouldn't be able to verbally joust with him. I couldn't have been more wrong. (wasn't the first time, either)
Ralph went to NY with Kongar-ol for the show, and as it was a solo performance, I stayed home. I was in the kitchen,
making pizza for the kids, when the phone rang. It was Ralph, calling from the dressing room of the Ed Sullivan Theatre in a
bit of a panic. Evidently, no one had told Kongar-ol that his TV performance was limited to two minutes. He had intended to
sing a medley that demonstrated the many styles of Tuvan throat-singing, that usually takes 5-6 minutes.
When he performed his song at the 4:00 rehearsal, the floor director stopped him after 2 1/2 minutes and tried to explain
that he couldn't sing that long. Kongar-ol felt that they were reacting to his performance; that after hearing him sing his
"audition" they were cutting him back to 2 minutes. He said to Ralph (in Tuvan) "I don't need this. No one in Tuva knows who
Letterman is. If they don't like my singing, I'll just leave." The Warner Bros. executive who was there with Ralph and Ondar
was about to explode. It's very difficult to get an act on the Letterman show, and his act was about to walk out, which would
guarantee that he would never get anyone else on the show. So Ralph was calling me for ideas on what to say to Kongar-ol. I
told him to explain that talk shows in America are not concerts, they're just a TV commercial for his record. Americans have
short attention spans, so he should go out and blow them away for two minutes, and hopefully they'll buy his record to hear
the rest. I guess it worked, as they called back later to tell me that he did fine, and that Letterman loved him.
I sat down with Pam that night to watch the show, and was stunned to hear Letterman prepping the audience for Ondar's
appearance before every commercial break! "I'm telling you folks, this guy is amazing! Wake up the kids, pour some black
coffee down them, they won't want to miss this! Paul, most singers can produce how many notes?" (Paul Shaffer answers:
"One") "That's right!" he continued. "But this guy, three, even four notes at once. Absolutely unbelievable!" Letterman was
truly in awe of Kongar-ol, and treated him with great respect. Kongar-ol gave the performance of his life, and an amazing two
minutes it was. No sooner did he finish than my phone began to ring. Friends and relatives were calling to say that they had
seen my Tuvan friend on TV. A couple of months later I played on the Letterman Show with singer Mandy Barnett, and the
crew was still excited about Ondar's performance.
A couple of nights later, Kongar-ol and Ralph were in Philadelphia, being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air"
program. Out of curiosity, I went to the Amazon.com website and checked "Back Tuva Future's" ranking. Prior to the show, it
had been about 172,000, but by the end of the show, it shot up to #6! I realized that lots of folks listen to the radio while
surfing the net.
Soon, requests were coming in to use songs from "Back Tuva Future" for TV and movies. We licensed the song "Tuva
Groove" for a Sony Playstation game called "Need for Speed II", two episodes of a FOX-TV show called "Get Real", and a
national TV ad for Mervyn's, a chain of stores owned by Target.
We farmed out the multi-tracks for "Tuva Groove" to five different dance remix teams around the world and released a dance
single, containing our original version and four of the remixes. The single climbed to #14 on Billboard's Dance Club chart.
Kongar-ol got a kick out of hearing that kids in dance clubs were writhing the night away to his record.
But our best lick and biggest adventure came when Universal Pictures contacted us, asking to license "Little Yurt on the
Prarie" for their upcoming Arnold Schwarzanegger film "End of Days". In the film, Arnold's character is battling the devil
(played by Gabriel Byrne) and they wanted the right to use the piece "an unlimited number of times" in the film. After some
intense negotiations, (I called their bluff by twice walking away from the deal), we finally reached an agreement, which
included a personal meeting between Kongar-ol and Schwarzanegger. The future "Gove-nater" reneged on that part of the
deal however, claiming that Universal didn't have the right to agree to the meeting without his knowledge. My favorite part of
the negotiations was when we turned them down for the second time, and the Hollywood music superviser started yelling on
the other end of the phone, slamming things around in his office, and generally acting like a two-year-old. He yelled,
"Nobody walks away from this kind of money!! Who the hell is this ONDAR, anyway??!!" In my mind I saw a humorous vision
of Kongar-ol, sitting cross-legged on a mountain-top in Tuva, and saying "Not enough money. Sorry, Jack."
To this day I haven't seen the movie, as I knew it was a dark and violent film, and I don't like to leave the theater feeling
worse than when I went in. We were glad to have made the deal for Kongar-ol though, as it made him some extra money to
take back to Tuva, and ASCAP awarded him a special cash prize as well, for his unique contribution to music.
__________________ Part 3 - Tuvan Anecdotes