Can the experience of a 26-year-old self described “old troubadour style” musician, born and raised in Kenya, who immigrated to the United States to live in his Aunt’s basement in the cold Minneapolis winter–because his folk-singer hero, Bob Dylan spent his late teens performing in the artsy Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota–be described as quintessentially American?
Tales of America (Verve Forecast), J.S. Ondara’s inaugural album, received with various expressions of awe and wonder when released this past February, answers the above question with an emphatic “YES!” A storied and celebrated “milk and honey” mythology, finding traction within a paradigm of possibility, while recognizing the illusory promise of both, is the On The Road type tale Ondara offers in this hauntingly beautiful work. Like Kerouac’s seminal novel, Ondara’s Tales depict a romantic, a dreamer, a ragged stranger navigating a strange land without a dollar (or a guitar) to his name, but a determination so intractable, a vision so pure, that the Starred and Striped Fairy of the West (as Ondara has deemed America) delivers the epitome of her greatness.
And the full power of that greatness is what our 26-year-old troubadour brought in abundance to a sold out, enthralled, and delighted audience last Tuesday night in DC at Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House. With a lone guitar, several carefully positioned microphones, and a voice at once haunting and beautiful, J.S Ondara sang, almost in its entirety, of his America, vast and flawed, impoverished and inspired.
Looking both stylish and comfortable in a colorful fitted suit and classic fedora, Ondara, began his set, quite appropriately, with “American Dream”:
But there’s a beast on the clock
Guarding against the folk
And the ghost from the river is watching
She won’t let you get any close
It was just an American dream
It was just an American dream, hey, he, hey
It was just an American dream
It was just an American dream hey, hey, hey
These lyrics suggest an elusive dream, an America not living up to its promise. For me, and I suspect for Ondara and many in the audience as well, the irony is twofold. First the phrase itself, which renders the “dream” as one fraught with unrealized expectations, and second the very fact that a 26-year-old Kenyan immigrant sits before us, and in an unimaginably lovely and magical way claims that promise and proves that we are forever enriched because of it.
Love is also recognized as a promise somewhat compromised by its realization. In “Give Me a Moment” the inevitability of a broken heart seems a little bit worth the longing and the emotion, even though painful, gained through experience:
Where have you been
Lover it’s not here
You’ve been out in Brazil
Chasing the football team
Then you left for the hills
Of Los Angeles
To find the man who was seen
Running around with Jolie
Well It’s not enough, to tell all your friends we’re in love
Oh would you give me a moment
So I can give you a moment
To break my heart, go on tear it apart
This wistfulness and poetic resonance of these lyrics typify the skill and beauty Ondara offers as a songwriter, furthering his “old troubadour style” self definition.
Ondara is endearing throughout his set, especially when he shares anecdotes and insights collected along his path to the present. “That’s not cold…they have to invent a new word for what I experienced in Minneapolis,” he shares of the unexpected chill that greeted him upon landing in the United States for the first time. And then there is my favorite story, about how he discovered Bob Dylan. As a high school student just beginning his self directed music education, Ondara actually lost a bet to a friend, because he insisted that Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was written by Guns and Roses.
Having won a green card lottery, Ondara immigrated to the United States in 2013 to become the singer/songwriter he believed he was meant to be. Tuesday night’s performance showed that he was right. His delivery of songs boasting both current and historical relevance, such as “Days of Insanity” and “Master O’Connor,” demonstrate a welcome voice—beautifully modulated with the accent of his homeland—as part of the conversation that sustains what is truly means to be America. J.S. Ondara’s encore for the evening was a sing-along of his lovely melody, “Saying Goodbye,” in which I think every voice in that room could be heard, blending together, in unison.