Named by Rolling Stone as an “Artist You Need To Know” and WXPN as an Artist to Watch, singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara graced the World Cafe Live stage this afternoon with a pocketful of sad folk songs and an unbelievable tale of his journey to music. Ondara was born in Nairobi, Kenya and discovered American folk music when he was 17 years old. He fell in love with Bob Dylan and started writing his songs before he could afford to buy a guitar. After immigrating to the U.S. in 2013 at age 20, Ondara worked the Minneapolis music scene “troubadour style” and uploaded covers of himself singing classics form Dylan, Neil Young, and Nirvana on YouTube. Flash forward six years and Ondara has released his debut album, Tales of America, and is embarking on an national tour.
Tales of America has been out for just over a month, and yet Ondara sold out his Free At Noon show. The crowd broke out in applause when he walked on stage and peppered in shouts of “I love you!” and “Welcome to Philly!” before he even touched a guitar. Ondara shared that his guitar was signed by Lindsey Buckingham, which led to more cheering and “I love you”‘s.
“Should we just talk for a while?” Ondara jokes before his opening song, “Either way works for me, I just want to spend time with you. They told me I can’t talk to much, so you have no choice but to listen to these sad folk songs.” Sad as they may be, Ondara’s songwriting strikes at the heart of anyone who has experienced an arduous journey. He opened with “American Dream”, a haunting song that investigates the gilded rhetoric of American opportunity and troubles easy understanding of what the “American dream” truly represents. He slowed the song down and extended it for this performance, and it was one of those moments where everyone in the crowd held their breath until the final note. He continued with equally narrative songs such as “God Bless America,” “Television Girl,” and “Good Questions” — in which he broke out an impressive falsetto.
It’s clear that Ondara has steeped himself in the singer songwriter folk tradition as every song of his is a tale and a lesson. He poked fun at his “sad songs” several times, but perhaps that is what his audience today needed. Sad songs are often the most memorable songs, and Ondara’s performance today will not be forgotten any time soon.