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IT TAKES A VILLAGER: ONDARA’S CROSS-BORDER FOLK REBELLION




THIS IS BOLD, ONE MIGHT even say brave in the face of the not-so-new Philistinism infecting the place. The Nairobi-born, Minneapolis-based, golden-voiced purveyor of neo-folk songs, J.S. Ondara has described himself as a useful member of society.


This claim soon will lead us to ponder the place of the immigrant, or the “new”, and explore Ondara’s mixed feelings about both his original home and his newer one – so strap in. But for now, while I’m in no position to comment as a journalist, a profession which has less respect than a used car salesman or politician, I’d say there are a lot of people who would see him and me as anything but useful.


What does Ondara contribute to society?


“I think that quote was about me wanting to be useful, wanting to be a useful member of society,” says the nattily dressed, cap-sporting singer. “Art functions as a mirror of society, a way for society to reflect upon itself, because I think sometimes we go through life subconsciously doing things without knowing why we’re doing them, just carrying on the momentum of our ancestors, but then art brings a mirror and shows us, like this is what you are doing, and once we observe that we have the impetus to make amendments on our way, and become better.”


Yeah sure buddy (we can hear a bevy of Sky After Dark boofheads raise their voices to object) but where’s the good?


“Another purpose of creating is to bring people together, a communion, especially in modern times where there is a spiritual malnourishment you could say. People don’t have anything since god died in some fashion, at least in any culturally significant way, and I think people are latching onto all kinds of things like politics or whatnot to fill that gap. I think art is a better thing that can be used in that space to bring people together and give them the feeling of having community and love and care.


“So there is some utility there I think I can say.”



His playground for doing good is bigger than Minnesota or Kenya for that matter. Ondara’s latest record Spanish Villager No. 3, tracks its nominal central character around the world, finding, sometimes faulting, behaviours that are, shall we say, not always welcoming to the financially insecure, the culturally displaced, the colour disruptive.


Having moved from acoustic folk sounds to this new record’s fuller, band-filled, environment, musically at least he would appear centrally positioned. Elsewhere though? Does he see himself as a citizen of the world, whatever that means? An American, however that’s defined? A Kenyan?


“I’m certainly more of a world citizen. I never felt at home in Kenya: I always felt a bit claustrophobic, like I needed to be somewhere else, to see the world,” Ondara says. “I didn’t quite fit in: I was drawn to Western music, I was drawn to the arts, and the arts were frowned upon in my immediate environment. So there was this internal discomfort from being there, it never really felt like home.”


Escape looked the answer. It wasn’t.


“I thought moving to America would solve that problem for me, but I moved to America and I never could fit in there either, because I was also this person of my complexion, making the music I was making, and I suppose it wasn’t culturally coherent for many Americans,” he says. “So I was something of a black sheep in America as well.


“That feeling of ‘this is home’ wasn’t something I was able to find, so I think I am a citizen of the world, and I’m glad that something is possible in our civilisation.”



Does it matter that he doesn’t feel like he has a home? Has he discarded the idea of a home because everywhere could be home or nowhere will ever be home? Or is he pretending not to care because it’s easier to deal with right now?


“Maybe I’m pretending so I don’t have to grieve about it too much,” he chuckles. “There was a moment where I would lament that loss but I think I’ve grown past it at this point in life. That’s where I’m at at the moment, trying to create the feeling of home internally, wherever I am: getting it from me and not expecting to get it from my environment.”


The reality of being an outsider in Minneapolis (chosen, in part, because in Kenya he’d read about the city’s Bob Dylan connection) is an experience that isn’t that many years ago for him. The freshness of those times in his memory infuses new songs such as An Alien In Minneapolis, filled with encounters and feelings that would be familiar to any of us who have migrated to new environments where by colour or culture we are “other” but fitting in was imperative.


Does Ondara continue to judge his environment, and by extension himself, by those early experiences?


“To a certain extent. Same as you, there was so much distance between where I was and where home was, physical distance but also mental distance. By the time I’d left home I was really ready to leave: I wanted out, I wanted to explore the world. So there is a kind of horsepower that puts behind you and your mental space that you are able to overlook a lot of things, a lot of imperfections as you’re exploring,” Ondara says. “That hunger for more definitely influenced how I was interacting with America when I landed, where I was just excited to be there. I was probably ignorant about a lot of racism in things like that and also too stimulated to care.


“Over time some of those experiences start to take a toll, but not in the initial phase, for sure.”


That’s something that would be true for many, those experiences viewed in retrospect taking on a different hue in part because of the absence of that initial “horsepower” that helped life to be lived while much was buried internally. All of which makes more fascinating Ondara’s writing in the graphic novel that runs parallel with the album, featuring the more fuller realised character of the activist/rebel Spanish Villager.



The Spanish Villager in print is described as having his face obscured by a cloth but “His fury and disillusionment is evident in the tone of his voice”. Where does that fury come from and where can it be directed for him? And maybe more importantly where does that sit with the author/musician?


“It comes from disillusionment. The character is entirely disillusioned by the American experiment, the whole experiment of Western civilisation,” Ondara says. “I think something happened with him in his family when he was a kid, an interaction with the system like the V For Vendetta [graphic novel and screen series] character in a way. I don’t know if you remember that movie but there was so much anger in that character. So this anger comes from the total disillusionment with the state of the world."


Ondara explains further that the Villager becomes “the shadow of civilisation”, holding all the resentment of many, so that “if you took those to the darkest place you possibly can and you put them in a person, you would probably put them where S V is in that narrative.”


This is a fictional character but is there some displacement for him of some of his feelings that he had parked for a decade or two but now had an avenue for those feelings to go?


“I think so. It’s definitely an extreme version of it but there’s definitely a certain amount of disillusionment that I’ve come to grapple with over time, after moving to America. That initial romance of moving to the promised land fades away over time, and you become disillusioned, and that’s sad,” he says. “It’s almost like falling out of love with someone you were very, very in love with at a particular time: there is a grieving to that.


“I think this character is that emotion but taken to the furthest extreme you possibly can. I think there is a danger to that too: there is a lot of extremism in culture and there is a danger of taking of resentments to an extreme place, so maybe there is a cautionary tale there too.”


For some of us there may not be that extremity of falling out of love but maybe a realisation, a tempering of that love to something more realistic as you understand now how things work and what the flaws are. It’s seeing that you didn’t pay attention to them before as you were caught up in the excitement of it.


Maybe life now is about balancing both truths, of the love and disillusionment.


“Yeah, it’s a bit of growing up I suppose.”



Ondara plays:

Mary’s Underground, Sydney – September 28

Dashville Skyline Festival, Hunter Valley – September 30

Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne – October 1




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