A Far Cry From Home

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

INZAI, Japan

Jerome White Jr. wears a do-rag while crooning syrupy ballads -- in perfect Japanese -- about lost love.

Part Public Enemy, part Sinatra, part schmaltz, it's an act the Japanese public has never seen before, and it is making him a star.

Jero, as he is marketed here, has a hugely successful debut single on the pop charts this spring and an album due this summer. When he makes personal appearances, as he did on a recent Saturday at the Big Hop mall here in the eastern exurbs of Tokyo, thousands of people show up, many of them to swoon. He does especially well with Japanese women, ages 8 to 85.

"I love the way he looks," gushed Sakura Takagi, a soap opera extra in her mid-30s who had traveled two hours by train to look at Jero. "He looks very kind and you can tell he is pure of heart."

Jero, who is sweet-faced, reed-thin and looks younger than his 26 years, comes to Japan by way of a working-class neighborhood on the north side of Pittsburgh.

It was there, thanks to the records, videos and cassette tapes played by his Japanese-born grandmother, that he got hooked on a melodramatic genre of Japanese folk balladry called enka. With no idea what the lyrics meant, he started singing it in fractured Japanese when he was 5. As far as anybody in the music industry knows, Jero is the first African American to sing this shamelessly maudlin music for a living.

Enka wallows in heartache. Accompanied by over-the-top orchestration, it is usually sung by an aging Japanese performer (male or female) in a kimono. Suicide is nearly always a viable option in its ballads of unrequited love, hopeless love, cheating love and relentless rain.

Enka became popular as a bathetic balm for the hard years that followed World War II. The Japanese sponged it up as they rebuilt their country into an industrial colossus. Enka was the sentimental mainstay of a million down-market karaoke bars. Until Jero burst upon the popular music scene here in February, it was also a musical genre that had lost much of its buzz. It had the unhip odor of Elvis ballads in his years of white jumpsuits and belly fat. Most of the people who sang enka were double or triple Jero's age, as were most of the people who listened to it.

Jero, an accomplished dancer with a big honeyed voice, seems to have stopped the music's slide. His marriage of hip-hop imagery with a rainy-night-in-Osaka sound is utterly new and way weird. Yet Japanese music critics and the Japanese public -- young and old -- say it works for them.

"His singing has this quality that is different from the usual heaviness of enka," said Masakazu Kitanaka, one of Japan's best-known popular music critics. "He has something fresh and crisp. He is easy on the ears of those who don't usually listen to enka and those who do think he is charming. I don't feel any incongruity for how he is dressed."

Then there is his ace in the hole -- his late grandmother, Takiko. She met and married Jero's grandfather when he was a sailor based in Yokohama.

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