Mon, Mar 30, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Japanese 'enka' singer performs in Washington


Singer Jerome White Jr, 27, known as Jero, who is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Japan, is seen at the Japanese embassy in Washington, on Friday.


As a boy, Jerome White Jr often spent weekends at his grandparents’ house, where a melodramatic genre of Japanese music called enka would waft in the background.

White’s Japanese grandmother, Takiko, had met his grandfather, an African-American serviceman, at a dance during World War II. And it was in their Pittsburgh living room that the six-year-old and his grandma sang the postwar songs of love, loss and hardship. Even though he didn’t understand the enka lyrics at the time, his Japanese singing pleased his grandmother, who died in 2005.

“I loved her very much,” says White, now 27. “It just made me want to learn more songs and practice more.”

Enka had an unwavering hook on White and it has made him a superstar in Japan, where he’s known as Jero. Named best new artist last year by Japan Record Awards — the Japanese version of the Grammys — White made his first major US appearance on Saturday during the opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington before a diverse audience of several hundred. They cheered, waved and some even held up signs bearing his name.

White has helped reintroduce enka — long a favorite of older generations — to the Japanese, breathing new life into its melodies by incorporating touches of pop or rhythm and blues.

Most striking is his wardrobe. Traditional enka crooners perform in a suit or kimono, but White sings in masterful Japanese while dressed in baggy pants, a do-rag and a cocked-to-the-side baseball cap.

Seeing an African-American artist sing a “kind of perfect way of enka” in hip-hop fashion — “that’s totally sort of an amazing contrast to us,” says Hideo Fukushima, public affairs minister at the Japanese embassy, which invited White to perform at the festival.

White said he hopes to make enka more appealing to younger audiences.

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