Jero: Retro Japanese R&B
Jerome White is an IT professional from Pittsburgh who lives the life of a celebrity in Japan, where he has single-handedly revived Japan’s version of the oldies.
“Enka” is described as country or blues music. Most enka songs are heavily produced pop ballads that peaked in the ’60s and ’70s. (They remind me of the theme song to a soap opera from the eighties, but that’s most likely due to the guitar and strings in the mix.) Production can be genre-defining, case in point hair bands.
An iconic crooner can also rev up an entire genre and make it timeless. Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley had their songbooks. Jero has his.
I saw Jero perform at Japan Society this past week. Alone on stage with a cordless microphone and a track, Jero’s charisma easily won over the bilingual crowd. He joked and bantered with the exuberant, mostly female audience, thanking us repeatedly in Japanese. He wore a royal-blue-and-white tuxedo and sparkling white sneakers. A white do-rag topped by a blue baseball cap and a rhinestone chain and heart locket completed the look. (Jero said when he looked in the mirror he was reminded of a giant bottle of Pepsi.) A disco ball radiated overhead while projections of snowy Japanese nature scenes flashed on the screen behind him. Smoke flowed across the stage and he assured the front row it was only dry ice. He began a sentimental love song in a rich, deep voice, accented by poignant expression and a single, raised eyebrow.
Jero says he owes his love of enka to his grandmother. He grew up listening to classic enka songs and inherited his grandma’s passion for the music. After winning a singing competition on a stay in Japan, he returned to study the music seriously as an adult. Luckily for enka. Jero was named Best New Artist of 2008 at The 50th Annual Japan Record Awards. He performed at Kohaku Uta Gassen, Japan’s prestigious New Year’s Eve show, fulfilling Grandma Takiko’s dream for him.
Wearing street gear instead of the traditional enka kimono, Jero has breathed new life into an aging music style and brought in young fans for a quintessentially Japanese genre. Becoming its leading man, Jero has crossed racial divides and brought an older generation of Japanese fans into the global millennium. Despite the electric guitar solos, it’s easy to see how Jero’s warmth and passion for the music draws in new enka fans. With his respectful brand of humor, it’s also easy to see how he’s an ambassador of culture, beguiling the ladies in the audience and making everyone feel a part of the show.
Jero’s most recent video was filmed on the set of a samurai soap opera with hip hop dancers and soap stars. Covers of forgotten ’60s ballads get a smart retro-fit by a sensei from Pittsburgh, who took karaoke to stellar limits.