Back TUVA Future - Part 3, Anecdotes
Kongar-ol & Family
On one of Kongar-ol's visits to the U.S., he brought his son Baiyer (5). My son was also five, and it was a joy to watch the
two boys play together as they bonded instantly, and the lack of a common language was hardly noticeable. The same was
true with Kongar-ol and I. I learned about 30 Tuvan words or phrases, and I learned which 100 or so English words Kongar-ol
could understand. We strung them together and along with a few gestures, got along pretty well. Of course, we had much
deeper conversations when Ralph was around to translate. One day, Kongar-ol's wife was playing Legos with my
three-year-old daughter. I pointed out to Ondar how much fun they were having and he said something in Tuvan I didn't
understand. I looked at Ralph and he translated, "He says that a mother in any country is still a mother."
Our cultural exchanges had some funny moments, as well. One night, Pam served a big dinner and we noticed that Ondar
didn't touch his corn-on-the-cob. Ralph explained, "In Tuva, corn is grown only as feed for horses and cows and never eaten
by people." Ralph then explained to Kongar-ol that this was a more tender, tasty strain of corn that Americans love to eat, and
he tried it. He liked it, but was very amused that he was over in "rich America", eating dinner with the "rich Americans", and
we were all eating horse feed.
One day we had a meeting at a local Holiday Inn, which sits right on Highway 96, a main drag. As we came out of the hotel
and piled into my van to head for the studio, I realized we had everybody except Kongar-ol's son, Baiyer. I turned around and
there he was, on the small grassy strip next to the busy road. He had his zipper down and was happily peeing into the grass,
oblivious to the line of cars that had slowed down to watch. I just laughed and wished my kids could have been there. Even
though they only heard about it, it's still one of their favorite stories from our Tuvan adventure.
We played a practical joke on Kongar-ol while making the record. Bob Tassi, our recording engineer, has an identical twin
brother named Joe. Joe stopped by the studio and as Kongar-ol stepped out of the control room, where he had just been
standing next to Bob, he ran into Joe in the hall. He did a classic double-take, then darted back into the control room to see if
there was still someone there. There was, and we had a laugh.
Ondar picked up some American slang, as well. When he'd flub a vocal line, we'd stop the tape. He'd look up, and in his
heavy Tuvan accent, say "Sorry, Jack".
Of all the American musicians we brought in, Ondar's favorite was Bill Miller. Tuvans and American Indians share similar
lifestyles, ceremonies, and even ceremonial costumes. In fact, a recent DNA study by a Russian scientist reveals a close
match between the Tuvans and the American Indians, particularly the tribes in the western U.S. This supports the theory that
humans migrated from Asia to North America some 30-40,000 years ago. So it's quite possible that Kongar-ol and Bill are
long lost cousins, descended from the same group of ancestors. Whether or not that's the case, they had an immediate
strong connection and enjoyed making music together. After the session, Kongar-ol remarked, "Five days in studio, (only)
one with Bill!"
_________________A Unique "Feynman-esque" Opportunity
Once in a while, sheer luck presents the opportunity to pull an great practical joke, if you are observant enough to recognize
it and can keep a straight face. Physicist Richard Feynman was famous for capitalizing on these situations and about a year
before starting on "Back TUVA Future", (but after getting to know Ralph Leighton by phone), one of these opportunities
presented itself, and I took full advantage.
I had just arrived at the Warner Bros. studio, and was setting up my keyboards for a 10:00 a.m. session. I heard the
engineer, assistant engineer, and studio manager talking in the lounge, down the hall. I thought I heard the word "Tuva"
mentioned so I slipped down the hall and "ear-wigged" (Aussie term for eavesdropping). Musician Jerry Garcia had recently
passed away and Tim Roberts (assistant engineer) had heard that a "Jerry Garcia commemorative stamp" was going to be
issued by a little country called Tuva. Tim was a Garcia fan and wanted the stamp as a souvenir.
Tuva's interesting triangular and diamond-shaped stamps have long been sought after by collectors, but the stamps have
always depicted typical or fanciful scenes of life in Tuva, and I thought it was unlikely that they would be issuing a stamp
honoring an American rock star.
I continued to earwig and heard Eric, (engineer) state that he could find out anything in ten minutes with nothing more than a
telephone. Tim said that he had spent hours on the internet and phone the day before, and couldn't find anything more than
the original mention of the stamp in the news. Pretty soon a challenge and $10 wager materialized, with Eric betting that he
could determine where to buy the stamps in ten minutes.
The clock started and Eric began feverishly dialing directory assistance for the number of the "Tuvan Embassy" in either
Washington or New York. I realized that they were so caught up in the challenge, that they hadn't heard me come in. I
opened my wallet and found Ralph Leighton's "Friends of Tuva" business card and memorized the toll-free number. Then I
waited until the ten minutes were up and as the yelling and laughing subsided, I walked into the lounge as if I had just arrived.
They greeted me and went back to talking about Eric's failed bet. (In ten minutes, the only thing he'd found out was that there
is no Tuvan Embassy.)
Playing dumb, I got them to recount the story of the stamp and the bet for me, then I asked, "Can I make the same bet, with
only five minutes?" They laughed and said "Sure, knock yourself out."
I said to Eric (who was still holding the phone), "O.K., dial this number: 1-800-882-8882." Puzzled, he dialed it, and as he
waited for it to connect, I said, "A guy named Ralph will probably answer, and you can ask him where to get the stamp". I
picked up my coffee and walked back out to the studio to continue setting up. Sure enough, Ralph answered with a cheerful
"Hello, Friends of Tuva!". Eric was speechless. Ralph said "Hello?" again and Eric said "Uh, yea, uh, do you know anything
about a Jerry Garcia stamp from a place called Tuva?" Ralph answered, "Yea, yea, it's basically a bunch of B.S. Someone
created the stamp in the style of Tuvan stamps and is selling them through an 800 number. They're not really from Tuva, but if
you want to buy some, here's the phone number..."
I heard a lot of yelling and "No way's!!!" coming from the lounge, and then they all came barging into the studio, asking "How
the hell did you do that?! How did you know that phone number?" Not wanting to spoil the mystery, I just said, "You'd be
surprised at what I know."
I still have to laugh at how amazing it was, as I was probably the only person in Tennessee to know that phone number and
even had it in my wallet. It's more amazing that I walked in just at the right time and overheard the conversation, giving me a
minute to memorize the number and plan my "performance".
About a year later, I explained the mystery to Tim and Declan, as they began working with me on Kongar-ol's record. I never
did tell Eric though.
_______________________ For More:
"Back Tuva Future" at Amazon.com _______ Kongar-ol Ondar's Website
__Friends of Tuva Website ______________ _ Genghis Blues Website
__________________ _(Back to Special Projects)
Paul Pena & Kongar-ol
Kongar-ol & Paul with
bluegrass legend Bill Monroe