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J.S. Ondara | Tales of America

The Kenyan singer-songwriter's debut heralds the arrival of a world-class talent.

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The American Dream doesn’t get much better than this. Six years ago, 20-year-old Nairobi native J.S. Ondara won a Green Card lottery and moved to Minnesota — where he promptly taught himself to play guitar like his hero Bob Dylan, began writing songs, snagged a major-label record deal and went on the road with artists like Lindsey Buckingham. It’s an incredible backstory. But not even half as incredible as his stunning and essential debut album. Tales of America is more than just an auspicious introduction; it heralds the arrival of a world-class talent. You can hear it in his hauntingly beautiful vocals, which marry the exotic lilt and vibrato of his birthplace to the soulful earthiness of his adopted homeland — and toss in the occasional nasally brayed echo of his beloved Zimmy. You can also hear traces of the young Dylan (along with contemporaries like Van Morrison) in the big ringing strum of his acoustic guitar and dynamic delivery. And you can’t miss it in poetic, urgent lyrics that deal with romantic yearning, his incredible journey and contemporary American life as seen through a newcomer’s wide-open eyes. With any luck, it’ll open the eyes — and minds — of those who would prefer to keep people like Ondara on the wrong side of borders and walls.