Just one look at J.S. Ondara tells anyone that the young man from Kenya has a rich story to tell, beyond the tapestry of his eclectic Americana-Esque wardrobe. Perhaps his choice of vibrant colors this morning, September 7, had a greater purpose. It was the national television debut for J.S. Ondara, after all, and he no doubt wanted to give his wide audience something splendid to see. From the time that 26-year-old opens his mouth, and offers his soul, to sing, everything on the surface level fades away. What is remembered is the songs about life, the fulfillment and the loss of love, and reflections on America, as related in Ondara’s moving first album, "Tales Of America."


Ondara is equally impressive in black and white as he is live and in color, as demonstrated by the video for his song, "American Dream." His personal depth and determination, combined with artistic abilities, caught the attention of Lindsey Buckingham and Americana-rock icon, Neil Young, who both brought him on tour. Rolling Stone profiled Ondara as an “Artist You Need to Know” in February of 2019, but nothing has come easy for this immigrant who came to Minnesota in 2013 at age 20. He has a tender, open heart to match the unique tenor that can turn to falsetto in his voice and his own perspective on folk truth.

In his three-song set for “Saturday Sessions” on “CBS This Morning,” J.S. Ondara had a lot to sing about, and he was in very good musical company.

Bob Dylan, his muse, would be proud.

A lost bet and a slow leap into the musical life

When Ondara was 16, he was stupefied to learn that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was written by Bob Dylan, and not his favorite band of the moment, Guns N’ Roses. The future songwriter lost a bet due to his ignorance of that truth, but immediately “dove deep and fell hard” him for the music of Bob Dylan.

The exuberant teenager memorized Bob Dylan's catalog and kept notebooks of his own songs along the way. Musical instruments were a luxury that J.S. Ondara’s family could never afford, but it didn't stop the new folk devotee’s creative flow.

When a green card lottery paved the opportunity for Ondara to settle in with an aunt in Minnesota, the reality of life versus dream set in for the youthful composer.

He soon realized that forming a band and hitting the road was going to be a tough proposition. The aspiring talent taught himself guitar and played every open mic opportunity available. Local radio buzz and unique YouTube covers of Nirvana and Neil Young classics caught the attention of industry producers, and led to Los Angeles and the making of "Tales of America."

Critics and fans alike frequently comment that J.S. Ondara doesn't sound like anyone else, and while that praise may be the highest compliment for any artist, it carries a tinge of not knowing where he fits, despite always knowing the kind of music and the heroes to whom he aspired.

The yearning and hopeful passion pulsated through the verses of "Torch Song," the opening song for Ondara.

Sparkling acoustic chords extol that the young man's love won't be “a sinner like Angelina” or the “woman from Ipanema,” yet the song fulfills its title in expected ways, with lessons learned because “my heart is never on tight,” and who would want it to be?

Talent and truth

Backed by the sterling musicianship of Taylor Goldsmith on vocals and guitar, and his brother, Griffin, on drums, J.S. Ondara moves into the plaintive "Saying Goodbye." The brothers from the popular folk band Dawes add the perfect accent to the ballad with the ridiculously infectious refrain. "Saturday Sessions" viewers are assuredly still singing along.

The closer for the morning set was “Lebanon,” with its rich stand-up bass introduction.

The sweet pledge of love and fidelity rings with a rare purity of heart. Calling to Lebanon, as in Scripture, Ondara declares “life is brief, don’t see it alone.”

Life has brought J.S. Ondara from Kenya to Minnesota, to his own American dream on the stage and to his first album, which will release in a deluxe edition on September 20. His journey, his talents, and even more inspiration are only just beginning.