J.S. Ondara's journey to the Tiny Desk is a fascinating one. From his home in Nairobi, he listened on his sister's radio to American artists, including Nirvana, Jeff Buckley, Death Cab For Cutie and, most importantly, Bob Dylan. He wanted to be a folk singer, so he moved to Minnesota, Dylan's home state.
At the Tiny Desk, after playing his song "Lebanon," from his debut album Tales of America, J.S. Ondara told us his story. "I remember, at one point, someone told me about this contest that you guys do called 'the Tiny Desk Contest.' And I was, at the time, desperately trying to be a folk singer. And I'm not quite. I'm not a big fan of contests, but I like NPR. So I figured I'd give it a shot. And I'd just written that song, 'Lebanon.' So I made a video of me playing that song, and I submitted it. And I suppose that things didn't go quite in my favor. So I figured I'd find a bit of a roundabout way to get here, which involved making a record and touring it relentlessly and stalking Bob [Boilen] all around South by Southwest. (I actually didn't do that part.) I was thinking about it. And now I'm here. The journey would have been a lot shorter had I just won the bloody contest. But in the very wise words of Miley Cyrus, 'it's not about how fast you get there, it's about the climb.'"
J.S. Ondara's music is sincere, with observations about America that are fresh and poetic. Here's how he compares the politics of our time, in his song, "Days of Insanity:"
"There is a bear at the airport, waiting on a plane
There is a cow at the funeral, bidding farewell
There is a goat at the terminal, boarding the C-train
There is a horse at the hospital, dancing with the hare
"Somebody call the doctor, from the university
Somebody call upon the witch and the wizardry
Somebody call the rabbi, the pastor and the sheikh
Coz we are coming on the days of insanity
The days of insanity."
And, now this Kenya-born singer is up for a Grammy award for Best Americana Album. Unbelievable, remarkable and well deserved.
- "Days Of Insanity"
- "Saying Goodbye"
J.S. Ondara: vocals, guitar
Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith, Maia Stern; Creative director: Bob Boilen; Audio engineer: Josh Rogosin; Editor: Jack Corbett; Videographers: Maia Stern, Jack Corbett; Associate producer: Bobby Carter; Executive producer: Lauren Onkey; VP, programming: Anya Grundmann; Photo: Catie Dull