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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

American finds his voice in the world of 'enka'

Staff writer

The world of "enka" ballads has been set on its ear with the historic debut of Jero, a 26-year-old black American from Pittsburgh whose sole passion since he was a child was to make the big time in the traditional crooning genre.

News photo
In tune: American "enka" (ballad) singer Jero gives an interview recently in Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Raised by his Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother, Jero said he grew up exposed to the Japanese language, food, culture and enka.

"(Enka) means a lot to me. It is a big part of who I am," Jero, short for Jerome White Jr., said in an interview with The Japan Times. "I listened to it in my free time. I listened to it in my car, going to school, in between classes. I listened to it every day, and it's something I want to do for a long time."

Jero recalled first listening to enka when he was around 5 or 6. Teaching himself hiragana and katakana so he could read the lyrics, Jero listened to the songs repeatedly and performed them for his grandmother at home.

"Enka is something that connected me to my grandmother and connected me to Japan," Jero said. "If it wasn't for enka and if it wasn't for my grandmother, I wouldn't be here."

Jero is no ordinary enka singer.

He may sing passionately about love and broken hearts, like other enka singers. But his get-up — flat-brimmed baseball cap and silver chains — make him look like he's ready to go clubbing in Tokyo's Roppongi entertainment district.

"The (hip-hop) look is who I am, wearing these clothes that I wear on a daily basis," Jero said. "I didn't want to wear a kimono. I was totally against wearing a kimono."

But at the same time, Jero acknowledges it took a bit of courage to be so "different" in a genre that places great value on tradition.

"The main thing I was worried about was not how the audience would perceive me, but how other enka singers would perceive me," Jero said. "I've looked up to (them) and I don't want them to think I'm making fun of enka or trying to change enka."

And luckily, Jero said all of the enka singers he has encountered have been appreciative of his style, supportive and cheering him on.

Jero came to Japan in 2003 aspiring to become an enka singer after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in information science. He began his life in Japan by teaching English in Wakayama Prefecture.

After successfully winning various karaoke competitions, Jero was scouted by Victor Entertainment. Following two years of vocal training, he finally made his dramatic debut as an enka singer in February.

With his first single, "Umiyuki" ("Ocean Snow"), he landed in fourth place on the singles chart compiled by Oricon Co. in just a couple of weeks — marking the highest-ever enka debut single.

Some 250,000 copies of the single have been sold as CDs and other media formats, while 500,000 copies have been downloaded via the Internet.

"I think everyone who has done some research on me or knows my story can relate with me in some ways or appreciate why I am doing what I am doing," Jero said. "I think a lot of people know how much love I have for my family and for (this) genre of music."

As a "minority" in the music industry in a country that is sometimes criticized for its exclusiveness regarding foreigners, Jero said he hopes he can send a positive message to the Japanese people.

"I think that me being an American and singing enka might change the perception for a few people about their views toward Americans or their views toward blacks," Jero said. "I would be extremely happy if I can (contribute to) the change in (people's) way of thinking, or changing some stereotypes as well."

Jero is enthusiastic about the possibility of the United States having its first black president — Barack Obama. Jero said he plans to cast his absentee ballot for Obama in November.

"I think it's long overdue" for the U.S. to have a black president, he said. "I think his way of thinking and his plans for the U.S. government and the world in general (will have a positive influence) and I think he can play a big part in (changing) how the outside world perceives the U.S."

But Jero's main goal is neither politics nor antidiscrimination movements — it is to spread enka to the younger generations.

He cites television programming as one reason enka is losing its appeal. TV music programs nowadays tend not to present pop music and enka on the same shows.

"It separates the audience, from the young and the old — (whereas in my case), enka was what kept my family together, it kept me talking to my grandmother, my mother and my grandfather," Jero said.

"And I think that if more people don't listen to enka right now, it's eventually going to die out. I'm just hoping that I'm able to bring (attention) to the enka world and get more people listening to it and interested in it."

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