J.S. Ondara immigrated to the United States from Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 at the age of twenty, settling in Minnesota because, well, that’s where Bob Dylan’s from of course. Seriously. That’s why he decided to hunker down there. Dylan inspired the young Kenyan somewhat accidentally – Ondara thought “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was a Guns N’ Roses tune until his buddy schooled him, at which point Dylan seeped irrevocably into his bloodstream. Although Ondara was a prolific lyric writer in Kenya, he didn’t pick up a guitar until he arrived in the United States.
The influence of Dylan on Ondara, both musically and in terms of haberdashery, is readily apparent, what with the acoustic stylings, harmonica rack and resplendent fedoras. Ondara’s first record, Tales of America (2019), received a Grammy nomination for best Americana record in 2019 and propelled him to opening for such acts as Neil Young and the Lumineers. It was difficult to pick just one song from the record to feature here, but I went with “Good Question.” The entire record is worth a listen, though. It’s very moving stuff, particularly the poignant and timely “God Bless America.”
A few months ago, Ondara released a lockdown-inspired record entitled Folk ‘N Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation, which he wrote in all of three days. It’s an even sparer record than Tales of America given the exigencies of the pandemic – no accompanying musicians. Here’s Ondara performing “Pulled Out of the Market,” a haunting lament of the current unemployment catastrophe, on Colbert the other night.
In case anyone doubts Ondara has a true rock ‘n roll soul, here’s a clip of him performing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s utterly unrecognizable other than Ondara’s primal screams starting at the 4:52 mark – grunge is nothing if not a primal scream and Ondara’s stirring, wailing vocals do the art form exquisite justice, albeit from a completely different angle. One can imagine Kurt Cobain smiling down.