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Kenya-raised singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara searches for America

J.S. Ondara

J.S. Ondara Josh Cheuse

J.S. Ondara first experienced below-freezing weather in February 2013, when his flight from Nairobi landed in Minnesota. “I walked out of the airport, and then I walked right back in,” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘What’s this invisible flame that’s burning me inside and out?’ So the first thing I had to deal with was finding my way around and getting used to the winter, questioning myself for a second, ‘Hmm... do I really want to be here?’”

But there was no going back. The aspiring folk singer had long wanted to travel to America, where he felt his music would be more accepted than in Kenya—his performance attire, including a fedora, even evokes look of an American troubadour of yesteryear. He specifically chose to live in Minnesota to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Bob Dylan.

Six years later, Ondara is releasing a full-length debut album, Tales of America, a showcase of his expressive singing, shimmering guitar, and impressionistic lyrics that document one immigrant’s experiences in America. Ondara will headline his own U.S. tour in the States beginning next month, which includes a stop at the Entry. “It’s why I came here,” he says. “It took that long to get all the ducks in a row, going out there and playing songs, and then working on them over and over again.”

Ondara originally wrote about 100 songs for Tales of America; 11 made it to the album. “The title of the record guided me a lot,” he says. “It was just this vision that I had for it. I had all the songs written with that sort of theme and title.” And whether directly or allegorically, these songs comment with poignance on his new home. On “God Bless America,” an original composition, he sings, “Will you let me in, or are you at capacity/Will you set me free, are you holding onto history.” The haunting a capella “Turkish Bandana” depicts the harsh reality of seeking a better life abroad: “You thought, you would be/Some kind of news maker/But now you’re still/A factory worker.”

The album opens with the soulful “American Dream,” whose lyrics could be interpreted as either an observation or critique of American society today. “It was me trying to process what that idea meant,” Ondara says. “What is the ‘American Dream’ for Americans and for immigrants alike? Sometimes you move here from places far away. And then you get to the county and you find the country in turmoil. What’s the dream or what’s left of it? It was me trying to process what that is and how that relates to an outsider’s point of view who’s just observing and experiencing it.”

As a boy in Nairobi, Ondara was raised on a lot of the same rock music as his American contempories: Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, Nirvana. He didn’t play an instrument because he couldn’t afford one, but he wrote songs anyway. And then, in his late teens, he was introduced to Dylan—thanks to Guns N’ Roses. Ondara and a fellow student got into an argument over who wrote “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which Ondara only knew from the G N’ R cover, and this led him to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “It was very raw and different from anything that I heard before,” he recalls, “and that sort of carried me away. The music took hold of me, but I was also captured by his journey as a person, and his persona.”

An inspired Ondara decided to seek his fortune in Dylan’s home state. “Soon after I listened to Freewheelin’, I made this decision that I will defy everything and try to become a singer and sing folk songs. I was looking for ways to make my way to America. One of the first things I did was apply to go to the University of Minnesota. I thought that would be an easy way to to get to Minnesota.” He laughs, then adds, “That didn’t work.”

Undeterred, Ondara made the trip anyway. He moved in with an aunt in Minneapolis, where he came across an abandoned guitar and developed his playing style. He performed at open mics and coffee houses, but didn’t seem to be getting anywere. His concerned family intervened. “I sort of succumbed to the pressures around me, where everyone’s like, ‘I told you it wasn’t gonna work. So go to school now,’” he says. “I enrolled in school and went in studying music therapy, [telling] myself, ‘It’s still music. It’s fine.’”

Then a friend invited him to check out a concert in town by the Seattle-based singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen. It was the first show that Ondara had ever paid to see. “I had this magnificent spiritual experience at that show listening to Noah and was so moved,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘OK, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.’ The following day I dropped out of school and went back to the open mics, playing shows—just doing it and recording songs until things took shape at some point.”

Ondara’s big break came when 89.3 the Current discovered his music. One day, a friend called the singer at his temp job. “He was like, “Hey, you’re on the radio!’ I’m like, ‘Well what do you mean I’m on the radio? I’m right here. What are you talking about?’ ‘No, you’re on the radio!’ I ended up finding out that the Current went to my YouTube, ripped my song, and played it.”

The country Ondara first arrived in six years ago has changed a lot since then, with a president who reportedly once called African nations “shithole countries” encouraging division over immigration along partisan lines. “I’m pretty grateful that I get to do this, but I am conscious that we are in tumultuous times,” Ondara says. “So I do grapple over that. I hope that by singing folk songs and speaking about things that affect me and other immigrants and Americans at large, that I can in some way contribute to moving us together to a better place.”

After traveling all that way to become a folk musician in America, did Ondara find what he was looking for? “I think I found parts of it, which is this record,” he says. “But the whole picture is not complete yet. I don’t know where the other pieces go. I think we’ll just keep figuring it out together as we move along. Speak with me in a year, and I might have something to say about that.”

J.S. Ondara
Where: Electric Fetus 
When: 7 p.m. Fri. Feb. 15
Tickets: Free; more info here