The Kenyan-born Americana singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara, who aspires to be his generation's Bob Dylan, has been writing since childhood.
“No one encouraged it, really. It was just a thing that I pursued out of interest," he says. "I think I started writing as a child, because I was just fascinated by the world, by the universe and by humanity, and I needed answers for it — how things worked. And no one gave me any answers, so I made up my own answers, and I’d write them down," he explains. “'What’s the big ball in the sky, and why does it not fall down?' I was just making up little snippets of stories as a kid to answer my own questions, and that became my fascination with, I suppose, the world, which is what sparked that interest in writing.”
More than a decade after pondering weighty questions as a kid growing up in Nairobi, Ondara is still searching for answers — now through music.
On his superb debut folk record, Tales of America, Ondara tells his own winding version of chasing the fabled American dream. The Minneapolis-based musician sings of the godless, endless Wild West that is America in the song “American Dream,” reflects on his own personal sacrifices and obstacles while in pursuit of a dream in “God Bless America,” and struggles to find his own identity in a country in the middle of an identity crisis in “Days of Insanity."
While Ondara, now 26, discovered his gift of storytelling at an early age, it wasn’t until he moved to Minneapolis about six years ago that he began to share his stories with others.
“I mostly tried not to do that,” says Ondara of his childhood. “My interest in the arts and music and in poetry and stories was something that I really kept to myself, really, growing up. I was sort of being raised to be a doctor or something like that.
“That whole artist interest was mostly frowned upon, so it wasn’t something I could be open about," he continues. "It was something I would do privately; singing was something I did in my room by myself. Not a lot of people knew anything about my interests in all that until [recently], when they saw me on the Internet [laughs], and they were like, ‘Whoa, we don’t know who that is.’”
Ondara even kept his talent — and his fantasy to be the next Dylan — from his family.
“It was perhaps too weird that I didn’t say it. I left on the pretexts that I would move to go to school, because had I told them otherwise, what my real intentions were, they probably wouldn’t let me leave," he says. "They’d be like, ‘You’re insane, you can’t go be a folksinger. That’s not a thing.' So, I told them I was going to go to school, and I’ll be a doctor and all that. But I knew what I had in mind, and as soon as I arrived here and was very far away from all that noise, I set the path towards where I wanted to go.”
Ondara no longer hides who he is.
“It’s out in the good old interwebs. It’s out in the world, and it’s just how it is," he says. As for the people he grew up with, "I think the problem is that the arts are not a very prominent part of what the culture was back home, and so they just don’t really know what to make of it, really, if there’s value in that in the society — just because it’s not something that was an important part of the culture or the families. But you know, it is what it is."
On the path to better understanding his place in the world, Ondara’s debut record is not the worst way to announce his intentions.
“I think perhaps the bigger problem is maybe they struggle to see the value in the art: What value does that have in the society and in civilization, as opposed to a doctor or a lawyer?" he says. "The value of that is very easy to compute, whereas the value of a storyteller is a bit more intricate. There’s obviously a lot of value in the arts; it’s just something that hasn’t been given enough attention in the sort of cultural upbringing there.”
The same spirit that drove Ondara to chase his vision under the guise of going to school to become a doctor is now the brand of his heartfelt folk tunes, as he has not only acknowledged, but embraced the sort of impact his story could potentially have on listeners.
“My path is to sort of rejuvenate this idea of the American dream," he says. "It’s such a great idea that has been forgotten, almost, and I’m hoping that living my life as an example will rejuvenate this idea. Not just for people that are moving here in the hopes of turning their dreams into reality, but to people who are residents of the country or Americans themselves, for them to say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s not a lost idea, it’s just something that’s real in spite of the struggles the country’s going through.’”
Ondara is still filled with questions — perhaps even more now than when he was a child. But gradually, he has become more comfortable in uncertainty, and in living life on the road as a traveling musician, wherever that may take him next.
“It’s all worth it. It’s the path I’m on, and I’m just moving along. I think of it as a train of destiny: It’s heading somewhere. I’m not particularly sure where. I’m not necessarily piloting, really; it’s just going by itself. I’m just in the train telling stories to the passengers in there. I did have moments of crippling self-doubt, for sure, because it’s a difficult path. Then I would go through that and just come right back, because I was too far from home.
“There’s nowhere to turn back to,” he adds with a laugh. “There only is forward, so there’s no way around it. The train’s gonna keep moving.”