When J.S. Ondara came to Minnesota from Nairobi, Kenya, a handful of years ago, it made sense personally (he has family in the area) and musically (he’s a huge Bob Dylan fan). And he wasted no time getting into the music scene. In lieu of his first album, which had been expected last year, the singer-songwriter has turned to videos to release a slate of new music—his first official singles.
The first, “Mother Christmas,” was recorded at a monastery-turned-studio in Wisconsin and came out in December. (“It’s kind of strange that the first piece of music I’m putting out is a Christmas song,” he told the Current’s Andrea Swensson. “I thought, that’s very bizarre, I love that!”)
The second live video, “Revolution Blues,” was shot at Mia this winter, in the airy Baroque gallery (G330) filled with enormous, dramatic paintings. Ondara had performed in the same space at a Third Thursday event last year, and was inspired by the acoustics and the art to return with this contemplative but urgent call to action.
As he told the Brooklyn Vegan blog, which first released the live video yesterday as well as the official final cut, “Mia is one of my favorite places in America—whenever I’m home in Minneapolis I always try to pop in for a moment. There is a certain peace and tranquility that I get when I’m roaming about the enormous museum taking in the incredible works of art.”
Here’s that video, along with an essay from Ondara (currently on tour with Nashville star Anderson East) about the song, his unreleased album, and this empowering moment.
J.S. Ondara’s “Revolution Blues” – Live from the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Mysterious Needle
It’s a very interesting time to be in America; a time when facts are relative, hate is rife, gun violence is rampant, and divisive politics are the norm. As a songwriter, it has presented me with an internal debate: Should I write songs that are fueled by these turbulent times? Or perhaps what people really need is a distraction.
2017 was a tumultuous year, and a lot of the music that came out was representative of that. Similarly, there was just as much music that steered away from the sensitive issues. Albums like Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator had moments of poignant deliberations on the times. Other albums like Beck’s Colors and Spoon’s Hot Thoughts, were mostly cheerful albums that offered a much needed escapism. Some would argue that with so much tumult and uncertainty, maybe such albums that offer a distraction are what people need to stay sane. Others would contend that sanity is but a luxury in the face of injustice. As a fan, I enjoyed all these facets of music. I enjoyed contemplating about gender and racial equality in songs like Isbell’s “White Man’s world,” but conversely I also enjoyed being distracted from the steady bombardment of worrisome news by songs like Beck’s “Wow.” As a songwriter, however, I found myself conflicted about what direction to take. Being a foreigner in America presented another layer of internal discord as I struggled to find my place amid all the chaos.
Whilst pondering about this, I was finishing up my first album which I had planned to release in the spring of 2017. At the time, I had spent over a year working on it. But just weeks away from release, I became unsure of whether I wanted to share it with the world. Things had changed drastically since I had written those songs. Suddenly they felt old and inaccessible; overtaken by the times. After many nights of deliberation, I decided to abandon that album as it was and start the process anew. This was a difficult decision that left a lot of people, myself included, in dismay. But as an enthusiast of folk music, and given the growing unrest in the country, I felt compelled to write different songs that were more pertinent to the times. One of the first songs that I completed for the new album was a song titled “Revolution Blues.” The song’s chorus took form in my head as I partook in the women’s march in St.Paul. It’s a song that was meant to capture both the frustration that ran rife following the 2016 elections and the sentiments of solidarity and empowerment that were exemplified at the march.
An interesting time it is, a desperate time really. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, because oftentimes desperation inspires activism. The chaos in the country has led young people to become more active in political issues. More women are feeling empowered to speak about their experiences and seek representation in government. Musicians, artists, and filmmakers are increasingly incorporating issues of social justice in their works. Amid all the noise, it feels as though there is something of an awakening on the rise. Sometimes, the needle moves in mysterious ways. —J.S. Ondara