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Kenyan singer JS Ondara keeps the American dream alive

Audio 17:19
J.S. Ondara: "I'm essentially a folk musician... with a wandering heart."
J.S. Ondara: "I'm essentially a folk musician... with a wandering heart." Josh Cheuse

JS Ondara began writing songs as a kid in Nairobi, obsessed with American artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. His dream of following in Dylan's footsteps became reality when, in 2013, he reached the U.S. He released his acclaimed debut album Tales of America in February this year.

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JS Ondara would appear to be living the dream. After releasing a remarkable debut album recounting the tales of living as an immigrant in America, he opened for Neil Young on his US tour in May.

"It's a bit of a dream, I still have to pinch myself," the 26 year old self-taught musician told RFI at a recent sold-out concert in Paris's Nouveau Casino.

"I'm essentially a folk musician, I have a wandering heart and a wondering mind and that's why I'm here now. I'm in Paris playing folk songs."

He talked to us about the difficult beginnings, grappling with the complexities of the American Dream and why, for the moment, he has "said goodbye" to the boy from Nairobi.

Listen to the podcast at the audio link and read some of the highlights below.

JS Ondara
JS Ondara Jon Kopaloff / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

On his place in President Donald Trump's America

"There’s definitely some kind of growing intolerance towards immigration in his era and I’m sort of trying to navigate that space and trying to shine some light through living out the American dream and show that’s something that can still be achievable. Maybe my place in Trump’s America is to succeed as an immigrant and show that it is possible and that there is a place for immigration and for immigrants, that there’s value in it still. 
 

On questioning the American dream

Writing the whole record, it’s a juxtaposition of what the dream is and how sometimes it turns into a nightmare once you’re in America ... the romance with firearms that America seems to have and there’s racism obviously and lots of other things that trouble America. But despite all that it still ends up becoming this place that people look up to in some way. So "that dream but not really" is what I was trying to convey in some fashion. 
 

On his family back in Nairobi

My family is mostly puzzled, they didn’t really know this was a version of me that could exist in the universe. They had no way they could conceptualise that because of how we grew up and because of what was around us. They’re largely puzzled but they’re happy for me. Music wasn’t really part of culture back home, of the family, so obviously they’re not going to support that because it makes no sense to them at all. 
 

On the song "Saying Goodbye"

I’m saying goodbye to a lot of things, I think of it as the totality of the past, just who I once was. The tradition, culture... And I think I reached a point in my life when I felt those things were keeping me from becoming the best version of who I am. And so I felt I had to separate myself from that and that’s part of the reason I moved to America. 

On returning to Kenya

I haven't been back. I would love to at the right time. Right now I’m busy and I’m glad I am. At the right time I’ll go back. 
 

JS Ondara chose 11 out of more than 100 songs for his debut album Tales of America
JS Ondara chose 11 out of more than 100 songs for his debut album Tales of America Verve Forecast

JS Ondara is in concert on 5 July, 2019 at Cognac Blues Passions festival

Tales of America is out on Verve Forecast Records

Visit his official website here

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