Minneapolis-via-Kenya songwriter recounts unlikely journey from watching videos of his heroes in internet cafes to playing alongside them
J.S. Ondara moved from Nairobi, Kenya, to the United States in 2013, determined to become a folk singer. There was just one problem: He didn't know how to play guitar.
But soon after landing in Minneapolis, Ondara got a guitar and began learning the song “Heart of Gold” by one of his musical heroes, Neil Young. He kept at it, and in the last few days — six years after picking up a guitar for the first time — Ondara has been playing to huge crowds in Washington and Oregon as the opening act for Neil Young.
“It was as surreal as I thought it would be,” Ondara, 26, said recently by phone. “It was amazing.”
Ondara described himself as the “weirdo” among his group of friends in Kenya. “When I was a kid I mostly liked rock music. I liked bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Nirvana,” he said.
Then, sometime in high school, a lost wager led Ondara in a new musical direction. “I made a bet about this song ‘Knockin on Heaven's Door.' I said it was a Guns N' Roses song, but turns out it was actually a Dylan song. So I lost a bet, but I found out about this whole world that I wasn't aware of before,” he said. “I discovered folk music through Bob Dylan, and that's what took me on this other route where I found Neil Young, Van Morrison — all that troubadour music.”
Right away, Ondara felt a strong connection to the storytelling nature of folk music. “I felt like that was what my path was, since I already loved to tell stories from a young age. I can take all these poems I've been writing since I was a kid and put them to some kind of melody and play them with a guitar, and it turns into a folk song,” he said. “Poetry was me trying to answer questions about the universe for myself, like, ‘Why is there a huge ball in the sky, and why does it not fall down?' … My muse was nature and the universe — waking up and being floored by the grandeur of nature and wondering, ‘What is all this?' I would write about ants, birds, the sky, the sun.”
Once Ondara zeroed in on becoming a folk singer, he knew he had to leave Kenya. “I'd go online at internet cafes and watch all these videos of bands performing, and I was just like, ‘I wanna go over there and do that with them,'” he said. “It was this fantasy I was trying to bring to life.”
Ondara told his family he was moving to the States to go to medical school, even though he had no intention of doing so. “I just needed a way out, and they weren't going to let me go if I said, ‘I'm going to go be a folk singer,'” said Ondara, who, not coincidentally, settled in the home state of Bob Dylan. “You know when you're just a blind, foolish dreamer, and you just want what you want and nothing else matters? It's mostly just folly. When it doesn't work out then it's absolutely foolish. When it does, people call it genius and confidence.”
Fortunately for Ondara, it worked out. Earlier this year he released debut album Tales of America (Verve) to critical acclaim. Throughout the record, which wisely puts Ondara's peculiar, haunting voice up front in the mix, he uses impressionistic ballads to explore the ways identity and home intersect.
“In the last six years, a lot has changed politically,” he said. “I'm an immigrant in America, and there's definitely a growing bad attitude toward immigration and immigrants, so I've been grappling with feelings concerning that and trying to figure out what my place is in America right now, and also in the future — what America is going to be, and what America can be. What is it that I can do to help propel things to what could be a better place?”