Kenyan-born singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara was welcomed back to his adopted home by a squeezed-in, sold-out audience at the Cedar Cultural Center last night. The stage held just two guitars and a solo microphone, and Ondara entered donning a newspaper Spanish Villager cap and stark white suit.
The first moments honored the anniversary of the death of George Floyd with “Turkish Bandana” sung a cappella. A song about hope for a new beginning, but met with the harsh realities of life, it ends with the lines “Ooh must I live in fear of the constabulary (police).” The opening served as a reminder of the realities that still exist in our country.
Ondara followed that with “God Bless America,” a song that encapsulates the dream of an immigrant and a country able to provide new beginnings. Witnessing Ondara, a product of immigration who has successfully followed their dreams, silence a sold-out audience with music should give everyone hope.
The set featured a heavy dose of his newest songs off of Spanish Villager No. 3, like “A Shakedown in Berlin,” “A Nocturnal Heresy,” and the hometown favorite “An Alien in Minneapolis,” which received an instant cheer. Also reminded of his affinity for Bob Dylan, the opening verse of “A Seminar in Tokyo” carried the same characteristics of the Hibbing native’s swayed vowels.
Ondara’s rich catalog represents the spirit of travel and unity in our world, as places are called out in many songs. The result is folk music that can transport you elsewhere, putting you in the singer’s shoes. Ondara is the travel agent of our imaginations.
Standout highlights include his “Torch Song” performance about missing love and being too late. The falsetto ending of the song sent shivers down my spine as the weight of the lyrics and pain were delivered by the sweetest angelic voice. Ondara’s cover of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” was another choice gem.
Hinting at a return in the fall and playing several new songs, including the heartbreak ode “Prescription of the Times,” Ondara’s soft-spoken charisma satisfied the eager audience. Ending with his biggest hit, “Saying Goodbye,” Ondara welcomed the crowd to sing along at the end, filling the room with soft voices and the feeling of community.