Enka music is often referred to as “Japanese blues.” The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion).
But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero’s historic New Year’s Eve performance)
Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he’s young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American.
He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important — and more unusual — he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be “old-fashioned.” Enka music isn’t quite blues — aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it’s not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it’s always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.
To American music fans, Enka sounds charmingly like Muzak with a singer, or an echo of the anachronistic “crooner” genre, like hearing Dinah Shore and Perry Como songs from the 1950s and ’60s. Production-wide, it has parallels in the string-drenched cosmopolitan Country music era of Nashville in the 1960s and early ’70s.
In fact, Enka’s production style is very much rooted in ’50s and ’60s pop music. Growing up in Japan, I heard the music a lot because both my mom and dad liked Enka. The quavering, nasal singing and the corny-but-sophisticated strings and echoey electric guitar picking out Japanese-style melodies are very familiar to me, played on reel-to-reel tapes on my dad’s old “hi-fi” stereo system.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, young Jero, who’s bi-racial, learned Enka from his Japanese grandmother and mimicked the singing as he absorbed his grandmother’s Japanese language and values. There’s a video of him like the young Michael Jackson, hamming it up for the camera, only singing in Japanese instead of doing a James Brown imitation.
He got a degree in Information Science and moved to Japan in 2003 to pursue his dream: to be an Enka star. He’s accomplished that, and received a lot of attention to boot.
He hit the charts with his very first single “Umi Yuki,” which translates to “Ocean Snow” (video above). The haunting melody, with its rock guitar intro to give it a contemporary hook, was a hit, even without audiences seeing Jero in person. When he appeared at impromptu street performances (there’s a funny video of one such appearance on YouTube) or on TV programs to promote the song, people were agog and astounded that this young black man could be the one singing such authentic Enka.
Unlike established Enka stars, Jero doesn’t wear kimono or suits. He wears his cockeyed baseball cap and bandana, t-shirts and hoodies and sneakers like any young kid in an American city. he also adds in some hip-hop dance moves into his choreography, which is fun to watch.
Although he’s gotten national coverage in Japan (my mom in Denver’s even seen him in a story on NHK, Japan’s public TV news network beamed via satellite over the Pacific), he’ll have a chance to shine live tonight (Japan time), and like Barack Obama, he’ll be making history. He’s the first-ever African American singer competing in the annual “Kohaku Uta Gassen” TV show, which has long been Japan’s equivalent of the Super Bowl in terms of viewership.
Instead of going out to New Year’s Eve parties, Japanese since the post-WWII years have stayed home to watch the live broadcast of a singing contest, in which men compete against women for the annual trophy.
Denver’s Japanese community has hosted its own Kohaku Uta Gassen contest every January (not on New Year’s Eve) for over three decades, and Erin competed for many years when she was younger. She also sang several years more recently, and I was even honored to be a judge one year.
In Japan, the contest brings out the leading lights of Japanese pop, and in recent years has even gotten Jpop stars out on stage, and it’s very cool that Jero will compete among such stellar performers this year.
What goes round, comes ’round — it would be an ironic twist if this foreigner comes to Japan and brings young people back to Enka, a style of music they’ve almost forgotten.
I’m sure the spirit of Jero’s grandmother, who passed away in 2005, will be watching over him, and applauding his success.
To all my friends, family and readers: SHINNEN OMEDETOU GOZAIMASU (until midnight tonight) and starting tomorrow, AKEMASHITE OMEDETOU GOZAIMASU!
(In Japan they give a slightly different greeting before and after the new year.)
UPDATED: Here are a few more videos of Jero, starting with his New Year’s Eve performance during the Kohaku Uta Gassen show, singing his hit “Umi Yuki” while his mtoher watches tearfully from the audience. Then there’s a three-part interview on CNN’s “TalkAsia” program. There’s a lot of stuff available on YouTube, both video of Jero and of other Enka artists to get a feel for the music: