Kenyan singer J.S. Ondara tells of how his radio was like ‘a spaceship taking me to a different universe’April 12, 2019
EVEN as a small boy growing up in the humble backstreets of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, J.S. Ondara was a dreamer.
He “didn’t have much” but there was always “enough food to eat, somewhere to lie at night” and his vivid imagination.
Of his few possessions, there was one he prized above all others: a tiny, battery-powered transistor radio.
For Ondara, it was a magic box filled with all the music he loved, the inspiration for his life journey . . . his escape route.
That journey took him across the globe to the childhood stomping ground of his American idol, Bob Dylan, who once sang: “The country I come from is called the Midwest/ I was taught and brought up there, the laws to abide.”
Settling in Minneapolis, 190 miles south of Dylan’s old house in Hibbing, Ondara set about achieving his dream of becoming a professional singer.
Now 26 with a velvet tenor that can shift through the gears to an astonishing falsetto, he has just released his captivating debut album of acoustic folk, Tales Of America.
And he’s never looked back, not once returning to Kenya where no one believed in him.
“I’m running away,” he says. “The past is behind me and I’m saying goodbye to it every day. That’s why I’ve written a song called Saying Goodbye.”
The natty dresser in a brown trilby has come to SFTW’s London Bridge HQ to “say hello” and we begin by discussing his childhood in East Africa.
When Ondara was seven, the Swahili speaker had only a rudimentary grasp of English. “I knew words like you, me, cup, table,” he says. “But I couldn’t construct sentences that made any sense.”
‘THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE, DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME’
He remembers a family gathering when one of his cousins “had the terrible idea of feeding me alcohol”.
He says: “I got quite inebriated and started joyously dancing and singing, just gibberish words to Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Instead of Kurt Cobain’s immortal howl, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us”, the boy sang, “Wizelatsa, isedenja, hiwiana, entatena”.
Ondara says: “I discovered music mainly through the BBC. I was drawn to rock songs and how strange they sounded.
“The radio was like a spaceship for me, taking me to a completely different universe. As a kid, I needed that trip to get away from where I was.”
One of the Ondara’s favourites was Guns N’ Roses’ raucous rendition of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, key to his circuitous route to the work of its writer, Bob Dylan.
The song provoked an incident during his teenage years that he’ll never forget. “I was so confident it was a Guns N’ Roses song, as confident as I am about the sky being blue,” he says.
“So I end up having a fight with a friend outside school and he goes, ‘Oh, actually it’s by a guy called Bob Dylan’. And I say, ‘Well, no, what are you talking about? It’s Guns N’ Roses obviously, I know this. I’ve been listening to rock music since I was a kid, you know nothing. Let’s have a bet’.”
With no smartphone at his disposal, it took Ondara a week to check out his assertion at an internet café.
He says: “I was wrong. I lost the bet but found my way to Dylan. I fell into this rabbit hole of folk music from which I have never got out.”
The 17-year-old Ondara was immediately struck by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963 with songs earning the “spokesman of a generation” tag — Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Masters Of War.
‘I FELL INTO THE RABBIT HOLE OF FOLK MUSIC’
“On that album, Bob was so young, so raw and so different from anyone I’d heard before,” says Ondara. “I couldn’t imagine this music being acceptable to a wide audience. I was flabbergasted.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wait, he’s popular and he writes actual poetry. Why don’t I write songs that aren’t just bubblegum pop?’ ”
Despite Ondara’s all-consuming passion, any thoughts of pursuing a music career were frowned on by his folks. He says: “I was stifled by my surroundings — the sheer lack of support and encouragement.
“But the desire was always there from a very young age. I’ve always had that fire, though I wasn’t able to share it with the people around me.
“Every time I brought it up, I’d be shut down. They’d say, ‘That’s impossible, don’t waste your time’. I was lost, lonely and sad.” So what did they expect him to do instead? “Doctor, lawyer, you know,” he sighs. “They’re probably still holding out hope that I’ll get to med school at some point.”
Given the noise in the States and beyond about his impressive forays into songwriting, performing and recording, that prospect is diminishing by the day.
J.S. Ondara – Tales of America
- American Dream
- Torch Song
- Saying Goodbye
- Days Of Insanity
- Television Girl
- Turkish Bandana
- Good Question
- Master O’Connor
- Give Me A Moment
- God Bless America
The story of how the Kenyan lad got to live in America is remarkable in itself. “After my Dylan experience, going to the US became an active goal,” says Ondara.
“I had some relatives scattered around the States but no clear path to getting there.
“I applied to school because I thought it would be a quick way to sneak in . . . didn’t work. I tried looking for jobs . . . didn’t work. There were years of me trying and failing.”
But the eventual success of Ondara’s quest is written in the stars, as he explains. “I won a green card lottery, which is just insane. It feels like my destiny.”
So, aged 20, he set off for a new life in Minneapolis, the location being what he calls a “romantic choice”.
He says: “When I found Dylan, I wanted to move to where he’s from. I arrived there in winter, the middle of February, and it was outrageously cold.
“I’d felt cold before but there should be another word for that. Pain, maybe. It felt like an invisible flame the first time I stepped out of the airport, like something was burning me everywhere.”
To begin with, things didn’t go to plan, with Ondara regularly thinking: “What the hell am I doing here?”
But he taught himself guitar and started singing in Minneapolis coffee shops, playing at open-mic nights, anything to gain experience and get noticed.
‘I’M STILL INSECURE ABOUT MY VOICE’
Gradually the word spread and Ondara was booked for gigs, appeared on local radio, and finally offers came in from record labels.
“I was puzzled by the good reactions I was getting,” he admits. “No one in my childhood told me, ‘You have a pleasant voice’. I still don’t know how to reconcile that.
“I’m still very nervous every time I’m on stage, still very insecure about my voice and singing.”
When he went to Los Angeles to record Tales Of America, the experience proved overwhelming. “It was very emotional, hard to put into words,” he says.
Listen to an effort like Torch Song and you can hear Ondara pouring his heart and soul into every note.
The song ends with one of his great falsetto moments, about which he says: “That comes from Thom Yorke, me trying to imitate him.
“Along with Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses on my radio, I used to hear Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. Jeff had an amazing falsetto and Thom has a great one too.”
Ondara confesses the vocal gymnastics don’t come completely naturally. “I used to lock myself in a room and do it in private,” he says.
“I feel as if I’m still learning. In fact, I’m learning how to be a singer every day. Getting out there and playing is an education.” As for calling his album Tales Of America, he says the title existed in his mind way before he even set foot in the country.
“It was just a stupid childhood fantasy that one day I would make a record called Tales Of America,” he says.
But the title suits his conflicted feelings about the Land Of The Free, a country giving him huge opportunities but still having deep divisions.
He says: “This is a pivotal moment for America and I remain an optimist. Trump is a divisive character but perhaps, once we get through what’s happening, there will be a brighter future.”
It’s these impressions that set the tone for his album, opening with the sublime American Dream.
“The song reflects my journey,” he says. “In America, you think you can be free, that you can make a living doing things you don’t absolutely hate.
“But those dreams can be very different from the actual America when you’re faced with realities and problems.
“I’ve written more than 20 songs called American Dream attempting to balance both aspects in one song.”
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Finally, I ask Ondara if he’ll ever return to Kenya to make peace with his past. “I don’t know how that would serve my path,” he replies. “Maybe, way later on, I could play a huge homecoming show and stimulate the arts community there because it’s lacking and partly explains why I was driven away.”
He says his family “are still puzzled by what my life has become”. He says: “My mother called me yesterday and I said, ‘Mum, I’m in Paris, it’s midnight’. She just said, ‘What?’ She was so confused and has no way of making sense of what I’m doing. She has this fear of the unknown.”
His mum needs to know that her son J.S. Ondara, acclaimed recording artist, is living the dream and that she can be very proud.
- Tales Of America is out now and single Saying Goodbye is out on April 26. J.S. Ondara plays Manchester (Castle Hotel) April 26, Bristol (The Louisiana) April 28, and London (Bush Hall) April 29.