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ONDARA ON THE ROAD TO LOVE AND OTHER APOLOGIES




In the concluding part of a trio of stories around the Kenyan folk singer with American musical roots, Ondara, we prepare for his return trip to Australia (and a new single, Winter Depression, which you can hear below) as he’s asked to explain himself, and maybe us.


It’s a small world, but these are big topics. And that’s before we get to love.

                            _________________________


 

IF A CATHOLIC UPBRINGING has taught me anything, it is that an apology can save a lot of things, up to and including your soul. So today as JS Ondara – though you can drop the JS: he does – beams in from his home in Minneapolis, our conversation has begun with an apology, mine, for missing his Sydney show last year because I was at another gig.


“Was it Hiss Golden Messenger? I knew he was playing the same night,” Ondara laughs, rocking in his seat, as he talks about the North Carolina soul/rock group fronted by MC Taylor. “I love him so much so I would do the same thing if I had my show.”


Thankfully then, penance is unnecessary as a quick return visit sees Ondara playing here again in March. And it won’t be the last time for his blend of American folk, social activism and, latterly, some punchy rock underneath.


“I get the feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of time in Australia over the span of my career. It seemed like people were waiting for me and there was such good energy. There were pockets of home.”


There may be another apology – again mine – in case I sound like one of those 1970s reporters doing the airport press conference of some or other celebrity just landed here, asking them “what do you think of Australia?”, practically daring them to say anything other than something positive while at the same time being so insecure about the fact that they may not.


But anyway, given this Kenyan-raised songwriter’s long-term intentions for us, and as a man whose last album, Spanish Villager No.3, had songs set in various pockets of displacement and unrest in the world, was there anything in his visits here that resonated or proved enlightening about us?


“It feels like just another Western civilisation but on the other side of the world. It’s like you took a flight from LA, the flight was 20 hours long, and then you are in Seattle where people are talking weird,” he smiles. “I found it really curious. It definitely felt weird, but I tend to feel weird in most places around the world: that’s an ongoing thread, one of the pieces of what my life is.”


How so?



“Some concerts I play I’m the only person who looks like me in the whole room. Maybe a concert with hundreds of people in there. It’s a strange feeling to feel that way, to look very different from everyone else in a particular room. I try not to think about it too much because there’s a bit of loneliness to it,” he says.


“But the thing about art and the type of spaces I occupy is that regardless of what people look like or what their ethnicities or cultures are, when people come together under the banner or fabric of art for a moment they become one. There is a consistent spirit you could say. These are the new forms of religion in a way, because that’s what religion would do: once people are together, there is something else that’s happening and it doesn’t matter very much what someone looks like or what their political affiliations are because for that particular moment they are there because they share a deep sense of love for something common.


“That creates a particular type of environment and it keeps me doing this. And that’s why it doesn’t  matter that I go to places where I’m the odd one out because there is this communal spirit.”


For him to feel right in his performance, does he have to believe that this communal spirit there for that hour and a half can ripple out beyond the room for much longer, or is it enough that it exists in that hour and a half?


“I definitely desire for it to be more. I certainly try to carry that feeling with me all around the world and bring it to the spaces that I occupy and sort of try to be that same person. I think with enough momentum it can go beyond that hour and a half, or if enough people pretend like it’s possible, then it becomes so.”


By this point a third apology comes forth. There is in Ondara’s songs and in so many of his interviews – see the links below for proof – a through-line of discussion of separateness within society, about being the one that isn’t like the others: a Kenyan in America; a black singer in folk music; a worker hanging on financially in a world of crass billionaires; a stylish man in a room of the, well, not so stylish. That’s what we talked about last time and the time before that; that’s what we’ve talked about today.



“There was a phase when I started my career when I was getting really frustrated about it because it was the only thing that people wanted to talk about,” he confesses. “But I came to the understanding that it’s fascinating and these are things worth talking about, so if there is any insights that I can offer that is useful in any fashion …”


Won’t any of us ask him about love? Would he ever be emotionally revealing?


“I probably struggle with that a little bit. When I write love songs they are very subtle and abstract. I suppose I haven’t learned to open up in that fashion completely. It’s a process and maybe some of it is my cultural upbringing: it’s easy to create a more serious persona as that’s more in alignment with how I was raised or taught how I should present myself as a man.


“There is value in being vulnerable and I think the West is breaking me slightly [he chuckles] and there is a bit of vulnerability there.”


He cites two songs where in the choruses he says something like “I don’t want to go with anybody else [to] downtown Tokyo” (Seminar In Tokyo) or “I’ll go wherever you go” (Lebanon), as proof he does write love songs, but immediately concedes even that is constricted.


“I tend to hide in the verses. In the verse I hide in there, this stoic man afraid of discussing love in any way, and in the chorus I’ll sneak out a bit. And that’s probably representative of my personality in some fashion,” says Ondara.


“You have to draw boundaries with the audience; you can let them in too much and yield to that machinery [so] your whole entirety is the product. I feel you lose your soul that way and you have to retain some of your soul for yourself. I found that’s healthier for me.”



Does he think that may change as he becomes more – “westernised?” he jumps in, with a laugh – yeah, or accustomed to people expecting more, along with a greater confidence in who he is and what he can present to people without losing his core?


“I expect some of it to change but not all of it. I think I just become wiser understanding what are the limits of what I can present to the people and what I hold on to myself. But the boundary will always exist, that’s a wall somewhere I can’t go to, and figure out how to negotiate it.”


And look, he’s not the first and won’t be the last to keep himself hidden in plain sight. Certainly not even the first from his part of America, birthplace of Robert Zimmerman, the artist formally known as Bob Dylan.


“One of the reasons I was drawn to Dylan’s writing was he had that same way of slightly hiding behind poetry and philosophy and then in the chorus would come out and say ‘I want you so bad’, then go and hide in a verse for a bunch of minutes. The way I vibrate, so to speak, is more compatible with that style of writing.”


And there’s nothing to apologise for with that.

 

 

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Ondara plays:

Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, March 8

Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 9-10

Lefty’s Music Hall, Brisbane, March 13

Trinity Sessions, Adelaide, March 14

The Great Club, Marrickville, March 15

Blue Mountains Folk Festival, March 16-17

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