The American Dream probably means something different to each person you’d ask. For some, it’s getting married, moving to the suburbs, having a couple of kids. For others, it’s working your way from bagging groceries to owning and operating a successful chain of supermarkets. J.S Ondara has a different idea.
Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where he fell in love with American rock music, especially Bob Dylan. Due to this intense affinity, Ondara decided to move to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota in 2013 in order to chase his dream of becoming a professional musician. He brought with him a head full of songs and not much else. He didn’t even know how to play an instrument.
Now, in 2019, Ondara is releasing his debut album Tales of America, on Verve Records.
Ondara plays simple, soulful folk-rock, with little in the way of a musical nod to his Kenyan roots. His voice is at the forefront, backed by acoustic guitar, sparse percussion and occasional support from additional strings. He’s is a self-taught singer and guitar player who’s made a point to avoiding training, thereby leaving his raw sound untarnished. As a result, the songs on Tales of America are uncomplicated. Ondara has no trouble creating fun and memorable melodies.
And he really shines at moments on this record. “Days of Insanity” finds the singer navigating the wild state of the world, asking us to call a doctor, priest, rabbi, witch, wizard, sheikh — anyone who might have answers. These uneasy sentiments ride over a driving acoustic guitar strum. Frantic strings creep in from the distance before disappearing and relinquishing control to the rhythm once more.
“Lebanon” hearkens to the call and response cadence of American spirituals without losing Ondara’s sense of self. “Give Me a Moment” is a gorgeous heartbreaker. Ondara is able to paint an ultra-personal picture of unrequited love in the span of a single line: “It’s not enough to tell your friends we’re in love.” It’s a subject touched by almost every songwriter, but few do so so poignantly.
The crooner wears his influences on his sleeve, however, sometimes to the point of seeming imitation.
“Master O’Connor” could easily slot into Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and feel at home. Ondara effects Dylan’s vocal delivery and cadence so accurately that his own identity seems to disappear. “Saying Goodbye” invokes Damien Rice’s emotional howl, and again all I can seem to think of is how much I enjoy certain Rice songs. In another number, Ondara himself warns, “Don’t hold a torch to the sun,” but he’s guilty of just that here. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t pleasant or good, they just keep the most interesting part of Ondara from us: his voice and story.
One of the most compelling songs is the title track, where he treats listeners to his outsider’s take on the “American Dream.” The song pulses at a sort of paranoid pace, with a dizzying fiddle hopping in to support a sense of uncertainty throughout. The music video accompanying the song presents a man confused by what he sees in his own backyard: a black man arresting a police officer, children being outlawed, food grown exclusively by electrolytes. It’s a powerful reminder that dreams can often be delusions, and that we need to temper our expectations with reality. Yet our reality in America right now is troubled. The video ends with the character entering a gun store, driven by fear. “Who would dream of this America?” we must ask ourselves.
The American Dream is a promise more than anything concrete, the promises of freedom for all. Though it has been marred by slavery, exploitation, bloody wars abroad and internal strife, perhaps beauty still lingers in its potential.
Tales of America and J.S. Ondara represent a faith in what the dream might one day be. Ondara is off to a great start and possesses an enormous amount of potential. Hopefully, he achieves the freedom to grow and change, unbeholden to anyone else’s dictated path.
Tales of America
By J.S. Ondara
Verve, Feb. 15
Photo: J.S. Ondara. Credit: Josh Cheuse.