By: Justin Hicken
Utah is quickly becoming acquainted with African Folk singer J.S. Ondara. I can’t think of any artists or groups (non-home-based) who have played shows in Utah four times in a less than 13-month span, but that’s exactly what Ondara just accomplished. The fourth and final time coming last Wednesday night April 3rd at The State Room in Salt Lake City, Utah. During his first three visits, Ondara performed as a supporting act for Anderson East, The Milk Carton Kids, and The Head and The Heart. This visit was J.S.’s first as a headliner – coming off the back of his debut record, Tales of America and he knocked it out of the park.
After a solid opening solo-acoustic set from Cat Clyde, who is also quickly getting her songs out to the world, and just released new single ‘Anymore’, Ondara took the stage by himself with just a couple of guitars propped up on stands as his companions for the night. Ondara set the tone for the night with a crowd silencing rendition of ‘American Dream’. Arguably his most popular single and his lead song from his new record, ‘American Dream’ carries a strong blues vibe and undertone.
Not only does Ondara have a powerful and unique voice for folk rock, but he is an excellent storyteller and even more impressive is that he does it so well in his non-native tongue of English. With such a small catalog, Ondara gave us fair warning that he was going to play all the songs from his debut album. Ondara did an excellent job of keeping the audience on their toes while mixing in personal stories before each song. Ondara cleverly and very Springsteen-esc wove his stories into the night while giving us background on his childhood life and family. Instead of using the money that his mother gave him to take public transportation to school, Ondara explained that he would spend hours in internet cafes watching YouTube videos and discovering artists.
These internet cafe sessions lead to a love of music and his discovery of Bob Dylan. Good fortune fell on Ondara, he explained, when he found out his aunt has entered his name into the Green Card lottery and he was chosen. Needing to decide on a place to call home he turned to his musical hero Bob Dylan and thought, “Well, he’s from Minnesota, that sounds like as good a place as any.”
Ondara described his first taste of Minnesota cold as if it were “Punishment for his sins”.
We were also treated to stories of reasons for certain songs and melodies like ‘Master O’Connor’, which is a very loud, strummy tune born from a need to have something to play above the loud chatter at local bars.
A highlight of the night for me was the very unexpected powerful and unique version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Ondara came out for a beautiful encore performance of the appropriately titled “Saying Goodbye”. It was very cool to see him come down from the stage after his performance and spend time signing merch and taking pictures with fans.
It seems like Ondara has been going non-stop and he is scheduled to head over to Europe for his next leg of his tour. I would highly recommend giving his new record a listen and circle the calendar for his next Utah visit.
Give Me a Moment
God Bless America
Days of Insanity
Smells Like Teen Spirit