Thursday, April 10, 2008

from atlantic to pacific...

Jero from Gaijin Pot

Jerome White Jr., 26, is a Steel City ex-pat making it big in Japan. Jero, as he's known there (his hometown nickname was Rome), combines a modest hip hop presence with the traditional Japanese genre of enka.

It developed after World War II and features teary ballads about life and love gone bad. In fact, Jero's hit song is about a spurned lover contemplating suicide.

He was born here (and no, we have precious little personal info on him. Presumably it's on his web site, but since it's in Japanese and we're not, um, exactly fluent...) to a half Japanese mom and black dad. Her mom, Jero's grandma, was a war bride that came here after WW2 with her sailor hubby.

Jero learned Japanese from his nana, and used to sing to her as a kid. After graduating from Pitt in 2003 with a degree in Information Science, he moved to Japan, looking for his roots and teaching English, translating, and putting in a gig as a systems engineer in Osaka to earn his daily bread.

Jero got turned on to enka as an exchange student, when he spent three months at Kansai's Gaidai University. When he arrived, he entered all the national NHK karaoke contests (it's much bigger there than here, where karaoke is just Friday night bar entertainment.) Jero did pretty well, placing high in showcase competitions and winning one of the biggies, attracting the attention of Victor record company execs in 2005.

An enka tune called "Umiyuki" (Ocean Snow) was his debut single early this year, and talk about hitting the charts with a bullet! It started off as #4 on the playlists, selling 3,500,000 copies in its' first week, a record for an enka song. Nothin' like starting off your career with a gold platter.

But it's his live show that draws raves. Enka is generally the domain of older music fans, but Jero's drawing some young 'uns to the scene. He drops some hip hop style on the audience, and dresses in a doo-rag, baseball cap, hoodie and baggies.

How much of a cultural sea change is that? Jero's also know as the "Kurofune" (Black Ship), a reference to Admiral Perry's fleet that opened up Japan's doors to the West. As karma would have it, Chris Briem of Null Space adds that Jero graduated from Perry High in the Northside, named for the good admiral.

Will he became a Japanese institution? Who knows? The shelf life of enka performers is notoriously short, and whether his style translates into long term success or just another flavor of the month will be seen. Jero is working on a full length album now, and its' sales will show if he's still hot or not.

He's getting lots of love from the Japanese press and the international set. His story's been covered by Reuters, CNN, AFP (the French news agency), USA Today, and Business Week. Here, Jero's not getting much attention, a familiar story for local artists. As the Good Book says "A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country..."

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