“Hello, I made a record recently and I‘m going to attempt to play it all to you. Wish me luck.” With confidence, stage presence and a receptive audience JS Ondara didn’t need luck. He would later receive a standing ovation from the Bush Hall faithful after a ninety-minute solo set featuring tracks from his debut album Tales Of America.
After winning a Green Card lottery Ondara left Kenya six years ago at the age of 17 to settle in Minnesota, the home state of Bob Dylan whom he had idolised from afar since hearing Knocking On Heaven’s Door as a teenager. In America he bought a guitar, taught himself at night and began working the folk scene of Minneapolis. Now living in New York and signed to a major label he has recently released his debut record – quaintly he calls it a record.
There are discernible influences in Ondara’s music, a Dylan-esque sneering vocal on Master O’Connor and a whiff of Jeff Buckley melancholy in his falsetto. There is an African feel to his finger-picking guitar technique and his vocal style derives from singing in his bedroom in Kenya, where he had no instruments, leading to a generous use of falsetto.
It takes courage and talent to perform a cappella at your debut headline show in London. He held the audience in the palm of his hand with Turkish Bandana, a song about the American dream, the theme of which pervades his record.
Ondara is full of stories, long stories. Stories of his mother, whom he has not seen since he left Kenya in 2013 but talks to everyday. He was late on stage after a grilling from her about his diet and his love life. Stories about the analogy of the horse in the hospital from a sketch by John Mulaney which inspired his Days of Insanity, the obligatory song from an artist from America about Donald Trump.
Saving the best until last Ondara covered Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit showing his musical roots. He closed with Saying Goodbye which brought a gentle crowd singalong, many of the audience being familiar with much of his material.
It will be interesting to track Ondara’s progress over the next few years as he’s made an impressive start to his dream of “being a folk singer going all over the world playing songs”.
Review and Photo by Chaz Brooks