Last night I was watching a TV program on Japan's NHK network that featured a succession of nattily dressed performers crooning Enka. Now Enka, for those who don't know, is a distinctive genre of Japanese modern music that sounds somewhat like Opera meets Country meets Folk. Very popular with Japan's geriatric set but mainly ignored (or worse) by the younger generation.
About to doze off, I was jolted to attention when the tuxedo-clad MC introduced Jero. At first, I had to laugh - dressed like Will Smith in his youthful rapping days, Jero looked about as out of place as the Fresh Prince did arriving in Bel Air. Instead of a suit & bow tie he wore an oversized ball cap, a couple of neck chains and plenty of bling. Then he began to sing, and the crowd respectfully listened... then applauded heartily after the song drew to a close.
So, who is this "Jero" and how did he manage to land a gig singing Enka, of all things? The story goes that Jerome White Jr., a recent University of Pittsburgh information science grad, used to listen to old Enka records when he visited his maternal grandmother (who is Japanese). After nearly winning a local karaoke contest in 2003, White decided to move to Japan where he quickly attracted attention from music industry scouts... and not only because of his race and nationality.
Steadily moving up the Enka ladder and singing - in fluent Japanese - before larger and more prestigious audiences, the 26-year-old White - or "Jero", as he began calling himself, released his first single called "Umiyuki" (Ocean Snow) on February 20, 2008. It immediately entered the popular ORICON chart at number 4!
Here's Jero appearing on a Japanese morning variety show - the show's hosts seem first amused, then amazed:
Sadly, Jero's grandmother is not around to witness her grandson's success having passed away three years ago.
"I'm so happy to have realized my dream of becoming an Enka singer in Japan, something I promised my grandmother," says Jero. "I'll do my best for another goal I promised her - to participate in Kohaku" (NHK's long-running year-end music & dance show).
Considering his stunning debut and overwhelmingly positive reception among Japanese young and old, that goal is well within Jero's reach. (via Japan Probe and Jero's Japanese website)