Although he is but one album, and one Australian visit, into his career, the “foundation story” of J. S. Ondara is, like the man himself, already irresistible and eminently quotable - just the kind of thing a nascent arts/culture/lifestyle festival like Zoneout needs to sell itself.
The story goes something like this: the roots/folk singer and songwriter, whose sound (acoustic, prominent vocal, remnants of jazz and soul in its rhythms) and look (dapper, almost dandy, post-war gentleman) is from a time both more polite but more intense, was growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, and a fan of Gun N’ Roses, in particular Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.
Shocked to discover that the song wasn’t written by messrs Rose, Stradlin, Slash, McKagan and Adler, but some bloke called Dylan, a deeply embarrassed Ondara deep dives into this “new” chap, becomes a devotee and, six years later when he secures a Green Card to emigrate to the USA, moves straight to Minnesota, birthplace of yon Dylan, and learns to play guitar.
Who knew embarrassment could be such a motivator!
To be fair to Ondara, I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed about not knowing who wrote that song: it’s been done by so many people in so many styles for so many years that it must feel simultaneously as old as a property developer’s grift and as fresh as a new prime ministerial lie.
However, I’m not sure one can as easily excuse being a Guns N’ Roses fan. Mr Ondara, we know you were young but what were you thinking?
He laughs for some time before saying “that sort of loud music, guitars, and a totally different language they were speaking that I couldn’t communicate in at the time, was just something of a trip to another universe, an escape for me as a kid”.
“I think it was probably the novelty of it and I couldn’t ignore it,” Ondara goes on. “It was for me a kind of spaceship that took me to a completely different universe and at home going through tough times it was an escape I needed.”
The question which inevitably follows is, was it easy to get spandex shorts and a top hat in Nairobi?
“No, no, not exactly,” he laughs again. “My grandfather had hats, he was a hat person, but I think my relationship with fashion changed mostly after I came to America. You could say the same about music: I never really had much resources to do anything back home. I couldn’t buy clothes, I couldn’t buy a musical instrument. Moving to America gave me the resources to not just start my career but also find a way to express myself in other ways.”
Can that explain that other crazy call, moving from Nairobi to Minneapolis, one of the coldest places in his new country? Again Mr Ondara, what were you thinking?
“I wasn’t doing much thinking,” he confesses. “I think I’m something of a romantic that way: I do things because that’s an instinctive thing. It either turns out to be extremely foolish or not, and you never really find out until you give it some time. I’m always walking that thin line, that thin line of idiocy.”
“But I am a romantic and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m also drawn to Bob Dylan. I really more about him I found out he was the same way, a romantic person who would pick up and go to New York, or decide to make a gospel record. I felt a kinship with that attitude.”
Dylan of course is part of that American tradition of national and self-mythologising, this idea that you can remake yourself in a new city, or a new country. We get it to a degree in Australia too, an immigrant country and one that like America has told itself how good it is because of this - as if we actually have always welcomed immigrants instead of tolerating them until they were like everyone else.
Ondara’s album, Tales Of America, takes on that national story at a time when the country’s leader thrives by sowing fear about the “other”. What is it like to be an American immigrant in the 21st century?
“It’s a growing journey of conflict and love at the same time. I’m very grateful for America offering me this opportunity to do something I desperately wanted to do, but there’s also this conflict in me looking at the growing intolerance towards immigration and seeing people who haven’t been as fortunate as I have,” Ondara says. “It’s definitely a push and pull, love and hate relationship with America. I’m using art to speak about it and see if it makes any difference.”
In any country we see ourselves in a particular and familiar way, the culture reinforcing our impressions. A newcomer inevitably sees the same things differently and his outsider status allows him fresh insights. As he prepares for this festival at Carriageworks in Sydney – a day offering new ways to look at film, art, yoga and “wellness” alongside music - can he see and say things that others can’t?
“I think people definitely lose perspective. People grow up one way and think that’s how it’s always been and forget how their ancestors got to this land and how they got to be who they are, and they lose compassion,” Ondara says. “For myself, I’m making that journey now, I’m an immigrant at this present time and experiencing things in real time, and I can see that difference day to day.
“I just hope that my children’s children’s children don’t forget that and become dispassionate to other people who are trying to make the same journey.”
Combining two things we’ve talked about, the romanticism of America remaking itself, and the immigrant/outsider perspective, he has mentioned many times in the past year or two how Van Morrison’s 1968 record, Astral Weeks, along with 1963’s The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, were on his mind when he came to make his debut album.
You can hear Morrison in the bassplaying of a song like Days Of Insanity especially, but what was he looking to take from Astral Weeks, made by the non-American who had grown up in love with the mythology and romance of American music, and Freewheelin, made by an American who had grown up the same way?
“There’s a lot of activity on the record but it’s also stripped down: you can hear Van’s voice and the guitar but there’s also strange and things happening around the instrumentation, especially the bass playing which I was actively trying to draw from when making my record,” he says. “That record and Freewheelin’ are pinnacles for tales of America because of how very raw they are, but also not raw really.”
The clarity of those records is definitely reflected in Ondara‘s Tales Of America, as is their absorption of a romantic spirit about the idea of creating something special. Ondara is not afraid to show that idealistic side of him.
“It’s an attitude you have towards life in general and I have a kinship with that sort of attitude that Morrison had, that Dylan had, that Springsteen had. You’ll find the records I’m drawing from – Astral Weeks, Freewheelin’, [Bruce Springsteen’s] Nebraska - all have this sonic element and the general idea of the romanticism behind it.”
It’s having faith in music and the idea of music?
“It’s a kind of religion in a way, yeah.”
Knockin on heaven’s door.
Tales Of America is out now.
J. S. Ondara performs at Zoneout Festival, Carriageworks, Saturday September 28.
Also performing: Luke Howard, Sophie Hutchings, Remy Van Kesteren, Peter Gregson, Sibeal, Lambert. www.zoneout.com