Ondara heals through new songs

We all have an inner voice. That silent whisper that offers guidance, a sense of morality and ambition. It can push us to great heights or prevent us from making bad decisions. It can even steer us towards healthier choices that keep us alive or thrive. For Kenyan-born artist, Ondara, this voice inspired him to leave the sometimes claustrophobic confines of his native homeland and culture to become the poet, songwriter and performer he had felt destined to be. As a child growing up in Nairobi, Ondara first discovered music through the radio, late night shows he listened to through crackling BBC broadcasts. He would wait for everyone to fall asleep to try his luck. Later, while strolling through local markets in the early 2000s, he came across pirated CDs. It was there that he discovered the artist who was to change his life: Bob Dylan. Today, Ondara lives in the United States, where she arrived after winning an immigration lottery. He is now a Grammy-nominated songwriter. But his latest project, he says, is both the easiest and the hardest thing he’s ever done. His new album, Spanish Villager #: 3which comes out on September 16, could end up saving his life.

“I think part of it is just finding something to do with your life that’s not nothing,” Ondara told American Songwriter. “You know?”

As a teenager, he says, he was just trying to figure out where he belonged in the world. What was he going to do with his time on the planet? According to him, there was no clear path to achieve what he wanted to achieve: art. From where he was in Kenya, he couldn’t figure out the next steps, couldn’t see them in his head. But finding Dylan one day was like starting a fire. He had always loved words and writing. But he never really considered himself a singer. So, upon hearing Dylan’s songs, Ondara thought he could write poetry and recite them to music as he realized Dylan often did.

“I thought he was just a poet who told poems,” Ondara says. “If there is a chance that I can find myself in the West, then maybe I could also be accepted by being a narrator of poems.”

He sang in private some, but not in public. His earlier discovery of Jeff Buckley inspired him to sing at least a little. Today, he still does not feel like a singer (although he is one). As for songwriting, he says, it’s an “extrapolation” of his love for literature and poetry. He thinks about it in a beautiful way: his voice, he says, is what “publishes” his poems. Ondara was lucky and won a lottery that allowed her to come to the United States. He chose Minneapolis, Minnesota because he knew Dylan was from the nearby area. There he began opening mics weekly for two years, honing his skills and confidence.

“I desperately wanted to come to America,” he says. “I wanted more. And I knew the place for more was America. So I tried all kinds of things. I tried to apply to school, for jobs. I thought if I could squeeze in there, I could try to be a rock star. I just needed to find my way somehow.

Then, after finding out about Dylan, he received news of his immigration lottery win, which he calls “absolute luck.” Maybe others would call it fate. Anyway, he “now manifests his destiny”. Opportunity lifted him out of the poverty he grew up in. He’s not inspired by fame or popularity, just opportunity and artistic sophistication. He wants to live a meaningful life, to wake up and be happy with what lies ahead. Music happened to be that thing that would help. Since arriving in the United States, Ondara has opened for bands like the Lumineers, First Aid Kit, The Head and the Heart and even Neil Young. He earned a Grammy nomination for his 2019 album, Tales of America. He continued with a 2020 LP, Folk N’ Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation. He calls the time he spent doing all of this “very dreamlike” when he now thinks about it in retrospect.

“At the time,” he says, “it didn’t seem particularly special. Just put one foot in front of the other, do what I was meant to do in the universe.

While he’s grateful people care, the accolades aren’t the driving force. In fact, at this precise moment, it is health that pushes him. Although this decision, he says, came almost unconsciously. His latest record is somewhat dichotomous, in that it came effortlessly to him but proved difficult to comprehend in its entirety. “It came out of me,” he says. He calls the process “tyrannical” in that he doesn’t feel like he has “too much control over the process.” In fact, he says “it’s very violent, almost aggressive” in the way it’s manifested.

“In that sense,” says Ondara, “it’s very difficult but also easy. I’m kind of giving in to the will of my body and my subconscious.

There are many layers to the album, as well as the accompanying singles and music videos. Visual themes for the release include Ondara wearing clothes and playing an acoustic guitar covered in newspaper. An immigrant, he toyed with and wonderfully subverted the idea of ​​an “alien” on the record’s first single. With each passing day, the themes and composition of the LP become clearer to him. The songs are born of years past, from the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd to the social unrest that followed. Thinking back to the songs, he realizes that he is in a process, in pursuit of healing.

“I think I’m trying to get healthier and heal from what the last few years have been like,” Ondara says. “I think there’s probably been a lot of accumulated trauma inside of me that has so many layers within it. Maybe that’s why the disc has a lot of layers.

The main character of the album, says Ondara, is a “conduit” of his own healing. That’s what he’s learning and he’s dealing with the creative acts that led him to make the new album. Coming from a country where he felt suffocated to land in a country where people like him are often in social peril, it’s a lot to endure. Art helps. Poetry and song buoy. He had been in a perpetual state of dissonance. Now, however, with three LPs under his belt, he has a chance to breathe and chart a new, healthier path. And from the release date of her album, Ondara will undergo a long tour, putting the next foot forward. Listening to himself. In a time when logic often rules, it’s his connection to (his) art, he says, that keeps him connected to what’s most important.

“I think music,” Ondara says, “has this function of bringing people together and creating a spiritual element in the world that the world desperately needs right now. That’s what I appreciate the most. »

Photo via Sacks Co.

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