J.S. Ondara's ‘Tales' Refreshes American Storytelling

The Kenyan-born singer-songwriter's debut album, "Tales of America," is the update American folk needs right now

J.S. Ondara is the drizzle the arid landscape of contemporary American folk -- and the concept of the American dream writ large -- need right now. The Kenyan-born singer-songwriter moved here from Nairobi just six years ago, but he didn't land in Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, or even Austin, for that matter. Instead, he found himself braving the polar cold of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"There is no way to conceptualize that kind of cold when you're not from there. When they tell you, "It's cold," well, I know cold. Whatever happens in Minneapolis is not really cold. There should be a new word for that. It's deathly," Ondara told me over the phone last month.

Getting used to the deathly cold was really the hardest part of immigrating to the Midwest, according to Ondara.

"I'd spent a lot of my childhood back home learning about America and the West: the vocabulary, the music, the film, so that made it easy for me to assimilate," he added.

Along with that Western cultural education came Ondara's love for Bob Dylan, who is something of a creative idol for him.

"He [Dylan] was able to capture the sentiments of the people at that time in a way that no one really did. It was in such a complete way, and I think the timing of Dylan's career was very paramount to the general success of what ended up being his legacy," Ondara said.

"Starting as a curator in that sort of civil movement and being able to capture the sentiments of the people in such a profound way is steeped in this folk tradition. It's something I hope to be able to do with my career," he added.

Ondara's debut album, "Tales of America," was released in February, representing his first step toward refreshing the American storytelling tradition in music and his embodiment of an American dream that's seemed to be slipping away in recent years.

"In the general sense of storytelling -- being steeped in stories passed on through generations -- it's similar no matter where you are [Kenya or America]," Ondara said.

"I think it's definitely a realistic thing that everyone should aspire to achieve, whether it's immigrants or just American citizens. The idea of the American dream is such a great idea that is kind of losing meaning. By living my life in the ways that I've chosen, I hope to rejuvenate that idea," he added.

J.S. Ondara headlines Casbah on Wednesday, April 10. The show is now sold out.

Rutger Ansley Rosenborg has been with NBC SoundDiego since 2016. Find out more here.

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