Tales of America
by David Chiu
There has been a lot of buzz surrounding folk singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara, and justifiably so. Originally from Kenya, Ondara came to Minnesota – the home state of his hero Bob Dylan – six years ago to launch his music career. He experienced some challenges in the pursuit of that but gradually built up a reputation as being one of the distinct new voices in music. Now all it has all culminated in Ondara’s powerful debut record, Tales of America, a meditation on America through an immigrant’s perspective. Channeling the style of Dylan along with other folk troubadours like Richie Havens and Tracy Chapman, Ondara offers commentary about the U.S. today in social and political contexts, from the somewhat enigmatic “American Dream,” the stark a capella “Turkish Bandana,” and the powerful and thought-provoking “God Bless America.” There are also some heartfelt tunes from the autobiographical and catchy “Saying Goodbye,” the yearning “Torch Song,” and the heartbreaking “Give Me a Moment.” The track “Master O’Connor” is the closest Ondara comes to emulating Dylan with its biting tone, evoking the latter’s “Masters of War” – it’s a track that could’ve appeared on The Times They-Are-a-Changin’. Featuring guest appearances by Andrew Bird and members of Dawes and the Milk Carton Kids, Tales of America is a vehicle for Ondara’s heartfelt singing and literal and figurative songwriting style (“Days of Insanity,” inspired by a story that comedian John Mulaney told on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert falls is an example of Ondara’s figurative storytelling). Based on Tales of America, whose themes are quite timely and relevant today, J.S. Ondara is certainly a new artist on the rise whom we should all be paying attention to.