Basic Folk 188 – Ondara

Lizzie No talks to Ondara

When Ondara was a little boy growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, music was both everywhere and just out of reach. He walked around the market listening to vendors playing music from stereos, stopping to listen when he heard something that caught his attention. His family couldn’t afford musical instruments, and the household radio was constantly in demand so he would wait until everyone was asleep so that he could listen to music by himself. He began writing poems, and eventually a cappella songs. He figured that if Bob Dylan could create a legacy setting insightful poems to music, so could he.

In 2013, Ondara won the green card lottery and moved to Minneapolis, because a. He had a family member there, and b. His hero Bob Dylan came from there. Ondara quickly discovered that Minnesota was a little different than he had dreamed. He was working temp jobs to buy his first guitar, writing dozens of songs that would eventually become his debut album, ‘Tales of America,’ and getting his foot in the door in the Minneapolis open mic scene. But he found that it was difficult to put a band together, that the life of a songwriter was lonely, and that, in America, the color of his skin came with a whole set of expectations about how he should behave (and even about what kind of music he should create).

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Ondara has worked to understand the expectations without bowing to them. He shared during our conversation that being Black in America means joining a tradition of art and resistance, and that helping The Cause matters to him. And his ability to contribute to the cause has grown exponentially, since Ondara hit the road in support of his hit debut album and opening for artists like Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham, and the Lumineers.

Since then, Ondara has looked outward for subject matter, releasing a pandemic-inspired album in 2020 based on his friends’ stories of quarantine dating and struggling to pay the rent. He has also undertaken a significant spiritual journey as he struggles to reconcile fame and the demands of capitalism with his desire to become a grounded, useful, wise, grown-up adult. His solution, for now, comes in the form of the Spanish Villager, the hyper-performative character at the center of his new album.

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