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Sunday JULY 28, 2019
Nairobi is an interesting place to grow up in. For better or worse, I am the person I am today both because of it and despite of it. In Nairobi, your background was paramount in how you would fare in life. What schools you would go to, what kind of opportunities you would get, what kind of friends you would have, what kind of connections you would make and so forth. Very often it felt as though every opportunity was hoarded among a certain group of people, living in certain neighborhoods and existing in certain circles. If you were a lowly lad like myself, not from an affluent family, you had to fight with your nails to get ahead. At which point you might afford to sustain yourself under the milk whilst the cream gets tossed around cup to cup. Such was the divided and corrupt state of affairs; but it was home, it was all I knew and with all its faults and flare, I loved it dearly and still do.
As a child, we didn’t have much, but we always had food to eat and a place to lie every night. A tiny battery powered radio was always present as well. Growing up, I was crazy about music. I loved it. I craved for it. I loved the sound of loud guitars. I loved the way a voice could mold itself to fit into a melody. Many times I would make up my own words to match the melodies of songs I liked, since at the time I didn't speak or understand English. I would hear a song such as ‘Smells like teen spirit’ and would make up gibberish words so I could sing along. 'Wizelatsa, isedenja, hiwiana, entatena'. That was my rough interpretation of the iconic song. At the time I was quite sure that's what Cobain was saying. A tale is told that at some point when I was only 7, my cousins gave me some alcohol as a joke. I quickly fell into a stupor, and started singing loudly and joyously . As they tell it, it is this day that I really began to sing and never stopped since.
Despite my love for music, it was never something that I considered pursuing as a career, not until much later on. Back home a career in the arts was not encouraged or even thought to be a possibility. In Fact, it was mostly frowned upon. So I was set to grow up to be an attorney, or a doctor; something that would be accepted by the culture and the family tree. But this was destined to change. I was obsessed with music. I wrote songs with a prolific tenacity. I sang everywhere and anywhere I suspected I was alone; while walking to school, going to the store, before bed, early morning… Slowly but surely, music became an integral part of who I was, there was no way to ignore it.
I wrote my first song when I was eight years old. It was about a puppy named Ramona. The second one was about Hannah, my elementary school deskmate. I lost track of the songs after that as I wrote quite regularly throughout primary school. The songs were mostly terrible but as I got into high school they started getting better, or so I thought. They had characters and consistent themes and slowly I found myself getting attached to the songs and the stories they told. I wrote a lot during this period, it was my reinforcement for studying. If I knew I had to study for a test and wasn’t in my most academic spirits, I would promise myself that if I got through a number of chapters I would get to write a song. It was a fun game that helped me excel at my exams.
My taste in music at the time was rooted in rock. I listened to rock radio growing up; bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Oasis and Death cab for cutie, were some of my favorites. My songwriting at the time also leaned towards arrangements synonymous with rock music. I didn't play any instruments though; not at all for any lack of interest but because no instruments were accessible to me at the time. It was a matter of priority; either my mother would buy us food for the next month or starve us and buy me a guitar and some lessons. Most battles, rock and roll would win, not this one. Playing instruments was always associated with affluence. Only the rich kids could afford such a luxury. In retrospect, this feels like a sad reality, since music is a language that should transcend all barriers.
This was not a problem for me though, at least it never felt like it. I wrote in loads. I would compose melodies in my head almost compulsively and would write down lyrics in the form of poems and short stories, to accompany them. Sometimes the songs would just exist in my head until they fizzled out and were replaced by new ones. Other times I would track down musicians to help me add some instrumentation to the songs. I loved the songs I was writing. Most of them were terrible but I loved them dearly nonetheless. I felt a certain ownership to them. I would think, 'I don't have much in this world, I barely have anything to call my own, but I have these songs. They are mine'.’
My musical journey took rapid turns as I gradually became more familiar with my voice and my ways of writing. A pivotal point for me was a very memorable moment in high school. I was 17 years old; It was sometime in the mid of March. I remember the precise moment because there were riots in a local university around the same time that left a student dead. Very sad times. But back to this moment, I got myself engaged in a debate with a fellow student. We were right outside the gate that led to the school, where students would often gather to enjoy an assortment of street foods. I can't recall how the conversation began but one minute we were talking about the riots at the university, and the next we were talking about Guns N’ Roses, the rock band. The student had this wild idea that the song ‘Knockin’ on heavens door’ was not actually a Guns N’ Roses song but was originally written by a chap called Bob Dylan. "Who now?” I retorted, “I promise you it’s a Guns N’ Roses song”. I was adamant about it, but so was he, “No dude, It's actually by this folk singer called Bob Dylan” he said. His tone of certainty was puzzling to me so I bet him 100 Ksh if I was wrong. A hundred shillings later, I found out I was wrong and by virtue got turned on to Bob Dylan.
I was heavy with curiosity and quickly delved into ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. After listening to the record, I remember struggling to comprehend what I'd just heard. It was an otherworldly trip. I hadn't heard music that was written or sang in that fashion before. I found myself puzzled by how raw the record was. It also became apparent to me after making this discovery, that there were other musicians, old and contemporary, in the same vein. I was quick and hungry to consume all the music I could find that shared the same coloration. There were times I would take a detour on my way to school, and spend the money I was given for lunch and bus fare in an internet cafe, searching for this music and listening avidly. This would lead me to fall in love with the music of other songwriters such as Neil Young, Ray Lamontagne, Damien Rice, Ryan Adams and many others. Through the conspirations of the universe, that is where I find myself presently in my musical voyage; although be warned that I am of a curious and wandering mind, and I therefore can’t tell where this expedition will lead.
Ah, America; the land of milk and honey, the starred and striped fairy of the west, as I like to call her. Here I find myself now, in Minneapolis; one of the coldest cities in the country. I knew I wasn't going to succeed playing the music I wanted to play back in Kenya, so I set my sights on America. I tried numerous times to seek out and apply for opportunities that would lead me here, but nothing ever worked until one day it did. I can't recall what that feeling was, if it was excitement or fear, or some combination of both. Sometimes you want something desperately, then once you get it, you become numb momentarily as you are uncertain what you got yourself into. I definitely had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was going to America to pursue a music career. This by itself was daunting, without considering the fact that I had no leads whatsoever, no instrument that I owned or could play; just a dream, a book of songs and a barrage of melodies fighting to exit my brain. I had relatives scattered around the states but eventually settled on moving to Bob Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. I was drawn to this place where this infamous folk-singer turned rock-star turned cultural phenomenon, that I looked upto, hailed from. And there I went; the MSP airport awaits.
I came in right in the heart of winter. It was the month of February and I think it would be misleading for me to say that it was cold. I had felt cold before. Back in Kenya, around June and July the temperatures would drop drastically. It would get wet, gloomy and cold. That was cold. What was transpiring in Minneapolis in the mid of February when I landed was not cold. It was outrageous. I thought, ‘This must be a sick joke. The universe thought it would be hilarious to make the weather so biting that it hurts your skin for almost half a year? But why??’ I was upset at nature’s errant behaviour at this time, but then the fall came and everything was gorgeous and I felt a relief. Only a temporary one though because as I have come to learn, winter is always coming.
Once you get over the weather, Minneapolis is a sweetheart of a place. I can’t imagine what kind of songwriter I would have been, had I gone anywhere different. I love this city dearly and owe so much to it. When I landed, my immediate goals were quite different. I wanted to form a band, and take it on the road. I couldn’t play any instruments so I needed a band. At some point I actively pursued the idea of forming a rock band with an opera singer. I wanted to do something different, something interesting, but having no social connections this became an impossible undertaking. Seeing that I wasn’t going to find luck forming a band, I picked up an old abandoned yamaha guitar that was lying about in my aunt’s house in Minneapolis where I resided at the time. The first songs I learnt to play were ‘Knockin’ on heaven’s door’, ‘Blowing in the wind’, and ‘Heart of gold’ in that order. I didn’t learn too many songs. I only wanted to know a few chords so I could put my words and melodies to a progression and accompany myself. I started messing around with the guitar more regularly. I would put my finger here then there, and was fascinated by the sounds that came out. I don’t know much of chords or theorized music, I only fool around and every once in awhile, I get lucky and find a sound that corresponds with a melody that I’m harvesting. Slowly, these songs started to pile up. At some point, I remember sitting in my aunt’s basement and thinking, ‘Well now you have all these songs but what now? What did you think was going to happen?’ The crippling voice of self-doubt was ever so present but there wasn’t much to do but to carry on.
The journey there on was tumultuous. I started looking for opportunities to play my songs to people. Songwriter circles, open mics, coffee shops, anything I could find or think of. This however only lasted a short while before my family put their foot down and asked that I enroll for school. It had been two years and not much had turned my way with the music. Two years is not enough time to become a live musician let alone start a career in music out of nothing, but my family was getting impatient. Things were also getting tough back home and I needed a steady income so I could be of assistance. Therefore, very reluctantly, I enrolled for school. I was to study music therapy. Something with a more stable projection for work. “Well, it’s still music” I comforted myself.
Two semesters in, a friend invited me to a concert. “You are going to love it” he said. It was a songwriter from Seattle whom I’d never heard of before called Noah Gundersen. That was the first show I’d ever paid money to go to. I was bombarded by many different emotions throughout the duration of the concert. My best attempt at describing it is that it was a spiritual experience. I recall leaving the show and thinking, “Well, to hell with everything else, that’s what I’m going to do”. I would then drop out of school the following day and go back into the grind of playing open mics, and shows around town. I was determined, hungry and inspired. Something will work out, it has to. And it did, after posting a few covers on the internet, playing the circuit around Minneapolis and recording a rough EP independently, word got around and the local public radio station ‘The Current’, picked up on my music and put it on regular rotation. I went on to play The Current’s birthday party at the iconic First Avenue mainroom and not long after that the business offers followed suit. Now here we are, not too far from where I started but not too close either. Just somewhere on the way, somewhere I don’t know and don’t wish to know; but stay with me, and we’ll navigate these murky roads together.
– J.S. Ondara
Newport Festivals Foundation has made a donation on behalf of J.S. Ondara to The Minnesota Music Coalition (MMC). This donation will help fund educational programs that teach musicians valuable and relevant skills such as sound, lighting, music business management and more.
Quote from J.S. Ondara
The MMC was a great resource in my early days in Minnesota when I didn't know anyone and was looking for a community to help me start a music career. I feel fortunate to have had that, and I wish the same for other musicians on a similar path.
Quote from Executive Director Ellen Stanley
We are so proud of Minnesota artist J.S. Ondara and couldn’t be more grateful that he has recognized the Minnesota Music Coalition to receive a donation from the Newport Festivals Foundation,” says MMC Executive Director Ellen Stanley. “We are big fans and can’t wait for more of the world to hear his music at Newport—y’all are in for a treat!