Updated: Feb 26, 2019
Author: Sam Seliger
J.S. Ondara is a unique case. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, the now 26-year-old singer-songwriter fell in love with American rock music of the 1990’s while growing up. However it was not until age 17 that he was introduced to the music of his idol, of sorts, Bob Dylan, and only then because a friend told him that Dylan was the author of the Guns ‘n Roses song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
At age 21, he immigrated to the United States, landing in Dylan’s hometown of Minneapolis. Ondara couldn’t play an instrument, so he was intent on forming a band. But as a new immigrant with zero connections, he had few options. He began learning guitar, and was soon playing at open mic nights around the city.
After a few cover versions of songs started gaining traction, Ondara was brought on several tours as an opening act, even opening for Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac.
Ondara’s first album, the aptly named “Tales of America,” is in the vein of Dylan, and other folk-rockers, such as Neil Young and Van Morrison, but with unique elements. On the album’s black-and white cover, Ondara stands on a empty street corner in a patterned suit, holding an acoustic guitar. He could almost pass for a musician of the delta blues that inspired some of his idols.
The opening track “American Dream” is a sparse folk tune, as rootsy guitar and old-school percussion support Ondara’s emotive voice as he sings “it was just an American dream.” The groove is strong enough to drive the song, but not overwhelming. Flutters of guitar and violin punctuate.
On “Days of Insanity,” Ondara’s lyricism is at its most Dylan-esque. “Somebody call the Rabbi,” he urges, “the Pastor and the Sheik, ‘cause were are coming on the days of insanity” as he spiritedly strums his guitar atop plucked stand-up bass.
The rest of the album is more pop influenced. “Saying Goodbye,” and much of the album’s second half, emulate the mellower side of ‘90’s and 2000’s rock; the familiar-sounding hooks hint of commercial sounds, without pandering. Ondara grew up on that music, and he seamlessly blends it with the retro folk aesthetic that he uses now.
Despite his foreign origins, Ondara’s is distinctly American music, both in sound and in outlook. His debut album is a sure-footed first step on a path towards continuing an American legacy that goes back over half a century.