Enka's Resuscitator"Dream with me."
by Charles Jeffrey Danoff
- Avon Barksdale1
Pittsburgh, PA. The town that steel built. Early 1990's.
A skinny cappuccino toned young man is walking to school. His Pirates cap is cocked slightly to the right. It's the only part of his head visible under his hood of his Steelers Starter Jacket. Below, he's rocking jeans and Tims2.
His overall ensemble is what one would expect from a Pittsburgh kid trying to imitate his MTV hip-hop heroes. He's alone, but he doesn't seem lonely. He's got big headphones on, presumably plugged into a Walkman.
If you could tell what kind of music one is listening to by staring at their gait, his would not be a chemically enhanced mosey courtesy of Snoop, nor a Biggie driven carry-his-weight-surprisingly-well shuffle. It would be that of a Japanese fisherman on his way to the bar after an honest day's work.
Measured, natural paces not with a skip in his step, but with that "same shit, different day" kind of resignation. Nothing new is waiting for him at the bar, the same beer, the same hostess lighting his cigarettes and thoughts of her and what they could have been.
He's far too close to his thoughts is the Hamletian3 question he asks himself every time he's about to open that door,
"Darling, shall I throw myself in?" 4
Suddenly our young man finds his promenade interrupted by an immovable object he didn't see as his eyes were to the ground, concentrating on his tunes. It's Johnny Dream Killer, flanked as usual by his followers, Stan The Glass Ceiling and Carl Just Give Up.
Johnny saw his target, unaware of his surroundings and stood in his way, eagerly anticipating the clash. He shoves our young man to the ground and gives him a tongue lashing for running into him.
Johnny then steals the headphones from him,
"What's a dweeb like you listening to anyway?"
Of all the things he'd imagined he could hear, an old Japanese man wailing about how his woman cheats on him behind his back was the absolute last thing. Needless to say, when sharing this news, the whole gang broke out into laughter.
"What're you listening to this for nimrod?" Johnny spits out venomously.
Thinking back to the previous evening kiss goodnight from his Japanese grandmother who said to him,
"You can do live any dream you choose in this life."
The boy repeated what he said to her to Johnny,
"When I grow up I'm gonna be a professional enka singer."
The laughter reached a level beyond common comprehension when these words were uttered.
"You can have these back, you'll need all the help you can get. There's no way you'll ever be a professional asswipe, let alone a singer of benka!"
"It's pronounced enka." The boy said snatching back his headphones while confidently striding past the group.
"Don't worry Grandma, I'll show them. We'll see whose laughing when I'm on the Kohaku Uta Gassen show, singing enka to millions," he whispered to himself as single tear falls down his cheek.
Above was historical fiction inspired by the true story of a man living a dream, breaking down racial barriers, and reviving a comatose genre.
The real fairytale story begins in the middle of the twentieth century when an American sailor fell in love with a Japanese woman in Yokohma, Japan. They got married, moved to America and had a daughter. Keeping with tradition, she found herself in a multi-racial relationship with an African-America.
Their child, Jerome Charles White Jr., was raised in Pittsburgh's Perry North neighborhood, but his heart was in Japan.
Thanks to his oba-chan, or grandmother, Jerome found his musical passion early: enka music, "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." 5 Enka is described by Wikipedia as suggesting "a more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes, comparable to American country and western music. 6."
Flash forward twenty-odd years and he's working in Japan as an English teacher. He had not forgotten the music; however, and was constantly attending auditions. On one for NHK television, he caught his break, and was signed by a label.
Two years of voice training later, and in early '08 he had a stage name: Jero He also had a single and video: umiyuki or, "Marine Snow." Then he blew up.
It debuted at #4 on the Japanese charts, the highest ever for an enka debut. He was immediately all over Japanese TV. In May, he had a commercial7, in June he dropped his first album (Covers), in February of '09 his second album (Yakusoku) currently in the top 208, in March he won two Gold Disc Awards9 - Japanese Grammys – and soon he will be performing at the government sponsored National Cherry Blossom Festival . 10
He's also made it onto the international radar in France11, Spain12, Sweden13, China14, and he made the Washington Post wait six weeks for an interview15.
But all that pales in comparison to keeping a promise to the woman that started it all.
Before his grandmother died, Jero told "her that I would strive to get on NHK's Kohaku Uta Gassen for her." 16 Kohaku is the New Year's Eve concert on national TV reserved for the creme de la creme of Japanese musicians. Some stars go their whole careers without making it. Jero got there in under a year, wearing a shirt with a picture of Grandma.
Tradition is a serious affair in Japan, and enka is one of its most historically hallowed art forms. How is it then that a young black kid cad in hip-hop attire and dancing around is making it when normal enka stars wear kimonos and don't move?
One foreign Japanese professor has an answer, enka is a fusion... with its roots in social commentary and, at times, political protest—and the more banal blue-collar aspects of country … enka was born of two streams: one political and the other a song form featuring schmaltzy, melodramatic ballads about life gone awry. Such fusion is not far afield from Jero's invocation of urban chic while singing traditional Japanese ballads--the politico-social merged with the maudlin mundane. If this is true, then it means that Jero has not strayed that far from enka's existential core; he is not actually that antithetical or heretical a figure. 17
Clearly, Jero captured Japan's imagination, but many have noted18 he's only really connected with one demographic: women, specifically older ones, presumably who were already enka fans, and are happy to hear a new star. While some might think achieving that and helping to break down racial stereotypes means he's made it, Jero realizes that is false.
"I know there is a perception that enka is a form of music that only the older generation listen to; therefore, young people don't listen to it... I'm hoping more young people will start listening to it and like it too, because if they don't, then enka will probably fade out." 19
His true mission is to bring enka back from the brink of death.
To measure Jero's influence on the young, I went somewhere where older people stereotypically don't: the Internet.
I started at one of the web's most popular sites: YouTube. Typing Jero in English or Japanese into the search box reveals scads of videos. I peruse deeper to find his most popular one. It's an early Japanese TV appearance on a talk show with men in suits and one in a Speedo. 485,976 views20. For a reference point, I looked at that week's most viewed videos in Japan. On March 9th, the top video had 295,464 views.
Next, I was impressed to discover Jero has a blog. Blogs are indispensable in the modern world for promotion and connecting with fans. It's all in Japanese, with entries split between those written by him and the "JERO BLOG STAFF."
Page views on a blog give you some measure of its popularity, but the real litmus test of a connection with readers is how many comments it gets. If people are willing to take time out of their day and respond in prose to an entry, you know they love what they're reading.
Starting in January of '08, the first few entries were surprisingly successful, as they received over 20 or so hits. This has predictably escalated with his rising sun, and now it gets over 70 comments per entry. Some of the most popular blogs on the internet do not get that kind of regular feedback.
Finally, I went to the home of young Japanese internet life: Mixi. This is Japan's answer to Facebook, except that it's been around since 1999. It is a perfect metaphor for Japan's still exclusionist ways, as the only way to get access is if you have a Japanese cell phone.
Given that excludes foreigners, it is the perfect place to see his connection with the Japanese youth.
Like all popular artists, he has a fan page. It has a message board, which gets updated regularly. The first post has 13 separate pages of responses. Reading some of them through Google translate reveals that they are intrigued by the mysterious foreigner.
Yet overall, Jero's fans pale in comparison to true Japanese stars and Western ones. Exile, Japan's equivalent to the mid '90's Backstreet Boys in sound and popularity has 63,305 fans and Ne-Yo has 41,068. Jero meanwhile comes in at a pedestrian 5,348.
Looking over his internet presence, it is tough to say Jero is bringing the young Japanese fans to Enka. His YouTube stats are decent, but hit videos get at least a million hits. Jero's nowhere near that. The comments on his blog are encouraging, but the key is Mixi. Until he gets more fans there, you cannot say he's speaking to today's youth.
Nevertheless, while one's Internet life is important, music's power is also seen in life outside the screen. In America that may be at a live performance, but in Japan, it's at a snack, or karaoke bar.
Late in the evening of March 10th, I found myself in such an establishment. It was the nijikai or afterparty of my junior high school graduation party. Surrounded by fellow teachers and parents of my students, I knew what I had to do to finish my article.
I prepared myself with bottles of Kirin21 and glasses of sake. I pointed to the digital karaoke menu and said "Jero" to my friend. He gave me a quizzical look, but grabbed the device. Considering he's 23 and immediately knew Jero, we know Jero is on the radar of the young Japanese consciousness beyond the web.
As he was selecting, a less than sober mother who'd taken a liking to me interrupted us.
Her motor skills failed her, and she fell into my lap, as she did speaking "Yesterday." Given she barely speaks English, I knew she was requesting the Beatles tune. I am not one to turn down a request, and enjoyed a duet with her.
Traditionally, it's poor form to do two songs back to back, but my buddy immediately went to Jero for me. Choosing his #1 single of course, I got out of my seat and sat alone at the bar.
To say my Japanese is bad is an understatement. I'd prepared myself for this; however, and printed off the words in English. The tune began, and off I went,
("From the freezing sky /Snow falls down to the sea / Drifts on to the waves and / Vanishes without a trace … The tears that fall are just snow on the ocean / which never settles"). 22
Another 23-year-old male shocked at what he was seeing, came by and grabbed my shoulders.
Unfortunately, reading words from a page and trying to follow an unfamiliar tune proved beyond me. Ultimately my performance topped that of the mother on "Yesterday," but not by much.
As the song faded away, I returned to my friends. I was not greeted with a thunderous applause, just a look in the eyes and a nod of respect from a middle-aged male. The party quickly moved on.
If the hypothesis of my scientific experiment were that young Japanese think Jero is cool, it came up negative. I got no high-fives, no cheers and I slept alone. Yet, there was a silver lining of hope. Before me, no one had really been singing. Afterwards, the mic was hot for the next hour. Perhaps if our young man can get bring a party in a rural town of 4,000 back to life, he can do the same for enka.
1. The Wire, Episode 36
2. Timberland Shoes
3. "To be, or not to be."
4. Cliche Enka questioning about suicide that is a regular debate in the genre. This particular line is from Jero's breakout hit single "Umiyuki."
5. The Japan Times, "American finds his voice in the world of 'enka'"
6. Wikipedia Enka Entry
7. See Japan Probe
8. As of March 9th, 2009.
9. Rob Schwartz "A New Look For Japan's Musicians (Newsweek, March 23, 2009) - story includes information about Jero winning two gold disc awards)
10. The Japan Times "Jero swings U.S. cherry blossom gig"
11. Orient Extreme "JERO: 1er album pour la révélation J-Music 2008"
12. L’Arcadia D'urias "Hilo musical: Jero, el afroamericano que hace llorar a las japonesas"
13. Swedish Wikipedia
14. Chinese Wikipedia
15. The Washington Post "A Far Cry From Home"
16. Japan Today "Mix master: Jero breathes new life into enka"
17. Pop Matters "Jero: Oh Yes, He Can"
18. Washinton Post, Japan Today, Japan Times – see earlier footnotes.
19. Japan Today
20. on YouTube
21. Japan’s Miller beer.
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