It stands to reason that the country that invented karaoke is one that takes karaoke very, very seriously.
It takes singing to backing tracks so seriously that in Japan, Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing showdown that airs live on New Year's Eve, has been like the Super Bowl of the country's broadcasting industry, drawing huge numbers of viewers year after year. And Colorado's Japanese-speaking community has brought the tradition to Denver by hosting its own Kohaku Uta Gassen every January for 36 years.
Since 1951, the year Japan and the US signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- the "Gaijin Shogun" who ruled Japan as the Commander-in-Chief during the US occupation of post-war Japan -- was fired by President Dwight Eisenhower, the annual karaoke singing contest has been one of the highlights of the country's cultural calendar.
Kohaku Uta Gassen (literally translated as "Red and White Singing Battle") has pitted women (the Red Team) against men (the White Team) in a competition to see who has the best singers.
That first Kohau Uta Gassen was broadcast on NHK radio on January 4, 1951. When television broadcasting began in 1953, the show moved onto the small screen, and to New Year's Eve. Along with sports shows such as wrestling (there was a huge fad of Western-style, not sumo, wrestling in the 1950s) and baseball, Uta Gassen helped boost sales of television sets because no one wanted to miss the shows.
Over the decades it became so popular, featuring the country's best performers in evolving styles from traditional "enka" (Japan's version of blues or country music, mostly about heartbreak) to the current Jpop and rock sounds, that it's become an institution.
Denver's Uta Gassen has also become an institution, with some performers singing every year. This year's contest, held at the Denver Buddhist Temple's auditorium in Sakura Square, was filled as usual with about 300 audience members, including the singers and their families and friends. It's always an all-Japanese affair -- the one year I served as a judge, I understood about 30% of the jokes and even less of lyrics but was able to vote on the merits of the performances.
It's extreme karaoke, spending an afternoon hearing 32 singers belting out songs in Japanese to nothing but backing tracks. At least they don't need to refer to a TV screen with the lyrics scrolling by -- they've been rehearsing their songs for weeks.
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.