- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 6-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 U.S. appearance 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.

Minoru Furuyama sat in the front row with his wife, their 18-year-old daughter and a friend. Furuyama says they came solely to see White’s performance.

“He’s got a beautiful voice,” says the 55-year-old from Rockville, Maryland. “He’s got the empathy or the soul for enka.”

Furuyama grew up listening to enka and says the ballads of unrequited love and heartache are a “very universal kind of message.”

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 Embassy of Japan, which invited White to perform at the festival.

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

“This has been a big part of my life since I was a kid, and I’m fulfilling my dream,” White says. “I’m just hoping everybody can at least feel something from it — even just have even a small ounce of interest in it.”

Singing enka was a constant during White’s childhood, though he says he never told his friends because they might have poked fun at him. He picked up some Japanese by listening to his grandmother and mother — who spent her first 13 years in Japan — speak the language. He later studied it in school.

White first visited Japan at age 15, to take part in a speech contest. At 20, he returned for three months as an exchange student while he studied information science at the University of Pittsburgh.

“At the time, I was into hip-hop and all about improving my Japanese and still singing enka,” says the soft-spoken White. “I just thought, enka, Japanese, dance and my love for computers and information science; all of that can be found in Japan. I just thought, I just have to come back.”

After graduation in 2003 he went back — to live.

While teaching English, White sang karaoke and took part in singing contests. He was discovered by Japan’s Victor Entertainment.

White’s career took off last year with his first release, “Umiyuki,” or “Ocean Snow,” which debuted at number four on the local pop charts — the highest debut ever by an enka artist. Last month, he released his first original album, “Yakusoku,” or “Promise.” Some of his performances are featured on the YouTube Web site.

For White, it’s just the beginning.

“I have a lot of enka stars that I’ve always looked up to since I was a kid,” White says. “I just want to be as successful as they are now.”

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