Show Review: J.S. Ondara Inspires with His American Tales at Songbyrd Record Café and Music House

Show Reviews

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.

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