Nairobi-born singer-songwriter Ondara has what may be the best origin story of any artist in the rock era. A fan of American music from his youngest days, he grew to be such an ardent follower of Bob Dylan that he moved from Kenya to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota (in February, no less). After two albums that stuck close to his folk roots, Ondara’s latest record, Spanish Villager NO: 3, takes on more of a rock-ish tone while also posing provocative questions to his adopted home.
Spanish Villager leads off with “An Alien in Minneapolis,” which is both a recall of his early days in the U.S. and a testament to the fact that, even after nearly a decade here, there are still moments (and people) who remind him that, as an immigrant, he somehow sticks out and is invisible at the same time – “Look now what I’ve become/Just anyone, no one.” LIke several of the tracks on the record, “Alien” features appearances from Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes. Taylor’s guitar work and the brothers’ backing vocals serve the musical palette well while allowing Ondara’s distinctive voice to shine.
As he stated in his interview with Americana Highways, Ondara subconsciously created the “Spanish Villager” character as “a repository for my anxieties,” and there’s much to be anxious about, from fighting inertia in “A Blackout in Paris” (“Everyone you ever knew is skipping town/While you’re waiting for your lover to come around”) to the fear of pulling away in “A Shakedown in Berlin” (“I don’t know how to let you go/Will you show me”). Noticeable, too, is the notion that the SV character allows Ondara to travel to places (Tokyo and Mexico City also make appearances) that were off-limits for most of us over the past two and a half years.
“A Prophet of Doom,” though, has Ondara ready to shake off the character and sing directly from his own observations. Starting a capella (in a chorus that is, stunningly, all voiced by Ondara), the tune launches into a piano-led mourning of an America that may exist only in our minds – “Democracy on the line/All the hoping it won’t do you no good, nor will the crying out” – countered by a list of promises that will never pay off – “If you’re waiting for a trip into Mars, not in your lifetime.” A cataloging of our collective sins is a ballsy move from someone who could so easily be “othered” (and, indeed, he says that he’s “gotten that several times”). His answer to such ugliness isn’t quitting, but rather a challenge. The bouncy, spiky-guitared “A Suspicious Deliverance” concludes with “Show me an observation/Of a better civilization.” Do we love this country enough to be that better place?
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “A Nocturnal Heresy” – Ondara’s and co-producer Mike Viola’s guitars bounce off each other with a wonderful indie rock fuzz.
Spanish Villager NO: 3 was produced by Mike Viola and Ondara, recorded by Viola, David Boucher, August Ogren, Frederic Vectol, Wesley Seidman and Nick Tveitbakk, mixed by Craig Silvey and mastered by Greg Reierson. All songs were written by Ondara. Additional musicians on the album include Viola (electric bass, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, percussion, synths, keys, backing vocals), Taylor Goldsmith (electric guitar, backing vocals), Griffin Goldsmith (drums, percussion, backing vocals), Sebastian Steinberg (upright bass), Jeremy Stacey (drums), Jonathan Harvey (bass), Robert Mangano (electric guitar), Jared Elioseff (bass, keyboards), Tim Kuhl (drums), Dayton Brock (guitars, piano), Tarek Abdelqader (drums), Lauren Anderson (bass), Aaron Levin (saxophone), Jeremy Ylvisaker (electric guitar, piano), Alexander Young (drums), Adam Wozniak (bass), Victor Indrizzo (drums, percussion), Joey C. Hays (drums) and Ian Allison (bass).
Go here to order Spanish Villager NO: 3 (out September 16): https://shop.spanishvillager.org/
For details on Ondara’s album release show in New York and future tour dates: https://www.spanishvillager.com/
To read our interview with Ondara: https://americanahighways.org/2022/09/07/interview-ondara-the-spanish-villager/