The work lies ahead

Kenyan-born folk singer J.S. Ondara grapples with life in America

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Josh Cheuse
Josh Cheuse

The last time J.S. Ondara was in Colorado, he opened for Lindsey Buckingham, of Fleetwood Mac fame, finding himself not only in the middle of a country he had always dreamed about, but performing alongside someone he never fathomed meeting.

“It was very surreal and bizarre, but in some way,” says the 26-year-old Kenyan-born American folk singer, “that’s what my life has turned into recently: It’s just this bizarre thing that I don’t know what you make of.”

Ondara’s first release, Tales of America, begins back in Kenya with a dream. “It’s just some unreasonable, dumb vision by a kid, which somehow found its way into fruition,” he says of the record’s genesis. “So I think it’s destiny in a way.”

Ondara grew up in Nairobi listening to rock songs, building his English vocabulary with help from Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke, struggling to fully comprehend the meaning behind the words. It wasn’t until high school when he was introduced to American folk, strangely enough because he lost a bet, arguing that Guns N’ Roses wrote “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” not this Bob Dylan his friend was going on about. “Discovering folk music happened quite accidentally,” he says. “Discovering the music of Dylan that way and [then] falling into this rabbit hole of folk music that I’m still digging myself into further every day, really.”

He immediately connected to folk music in a different — deeper — way. It’s about tradition, storytelling, capturing a particular moment in time and passing down that history from one generation to the next through song. It’s about society, culture, all of civilization, really, Ondara says.

“It’s such a universal thing, whether you were in America or Kenya or anywhere else. I was just flabbergasted that I wasn’t aware of that music before.”

With this discovery came a dream, to write and record in America himself, contributing to the vast collection of folk music with an album titled Tales of America. Just as Dylan told the story of the ’60s, Ondara would tell the story of his generation. Ondara applied for school in the U.S., he applied for jobs, trying anything and everything to get a visa, all to no avail. Then one morning, about six years ago, his sister came into his room and said, “You’re going to America,” he remembers. Turns out an aunt had submitted a bunch of family members’ names into a green card lottery and Ondara was the only one selected.

“I tried everything else and I failed,” he says. “At this moment when I didn’t know what to do next, this green card finds me.”

He moved to Minnesota where some relatives lived (also the birthplace of Dylan) at age 20. Once there, Ondara taught himself to play the guitar, something he never had access to as a kid growing up in Kenya. And he continued on what he calls the “lonely journey” toward music, something he didn’t really share with close family and friends. “It was almost a taboo in a way, I just couldn’t be open about it,” he says. Still, he was persistent and started playing open mics in Minneapolis, eventually landing a record deal for Tales of America. Recently he was on the phone with an aunt trying to explain to her that it really was him singing online. She assumed he was lip-syncing, he says.

While the album got its start with a dream in Kenya, its content is focused on Ondara’s life in the U.S., starting with possibility, hope and prospect in “American Dream.” He then weaves his way through the immigrant experience, making it clear he believes in the American dream despite its complexities with songs like “Saying Goodbye” and “Days of Insanity.” But that faith soon turns to disillusionment as the reality of life in America is much more complicated than the idea of it.

“She said there was milk/ Well she said there was honey/ Instead there was bills/ And not enough money” he sings a capella in “Turkish Bandana” before closing the song in a high, sweeping falsetto, admitting his fear of the police living as a black man in America.

Ondara doesn’t wallow in that despair, however. By the end of the record, “I’m finding peace in some way with America,” he says, “with what it is realizing that, oh, this is a very troubled place. It’s great, but it can be a lot better.”

The closing song, “God Bless America,” is both a statement and a prayer, confessing the worst, hoping it makes us better in the end.

“As fond as I am of the American dream and of America for granting me this opportunity to become a folk singer and a storyteller, I’m also very, very conscious of the fact that the country is going through lots of troubles at the moment and the work lies ahead,” he says.

“I’m trying to see if there’s this little part I can play in influencing things towards a better place, towards a more positive place.”

Both in Ondara’s story and music, it appears as though the American dream is alive and well.

ON THE BILL: J.S. Ondara. 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, Lost Lake, 3602 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, lost-lake.com