The idea — or, more rightly so, the myth — of the American dream is something that reverberates the world over. Though the specific details are likely different for everyone, the overarching vision is certainly the same, summed up pretty well in the iconic “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” phrase. In the world’s richest nation, surely it’s not a far-fetched notion to think that each of us can work hard enough to do well enough to live happily enough. Right? Well… that has never been true for all of us and is not now true for many of us, immigrants included.
Still, singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara chased that dream from Nairobi, Kenya, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, after listening to Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan. He taught himself to sing, play, and write, learning English by singing Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs… incorrectly, if not incoherently. Once settled in Minneapolis, he played open mic nights and cranked out more than 100 songs, whittling the collection down to 11 for his debut album, Tales of America, on which he sings about his journey between his past and his present. He says it took him more than 20 attempts at writing “American Dream” to get it right, proving that, even in song form, it’s as elusive as ever. To be sure, though, Ondara’s story is the American dream that so many hold so dear.
Produced by Mike Viola, Tales of America is a fairly straightforward folk-rock record — comparisons to Tracy Chapman’s debut are not unwarranted — with just enough other-worldly flourishes to signal that Ondara’s story isn’t a fairly straightforward folk-hero story. Those touches also point to the fact that folk music has roots the world over, including (and especially) in Africa. Lest we need even more evidence, Ondara’s vocal timbre and accent clearly convey that he is more than just another guy from small town America. The songs take it a few steps further, offering an outside-looking-in perspective on just what this country is.
Standout tracks include “American Dream,” “Saying Goodbye,” “Torch Song,” “Good Question,” and, to be honest, the other seven, as well. Each cut seems to peel away a different layer of the story, so it’s really best to take the set as a whole, letting it build and bend its way to its conclusion of “God Bless America,” which is, no, not that “God Bless America.” Taking that whole journey with Ondara as a guide somehow sparks a small glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, there’s still a version of the American dream that is available and achievable.