I felt terribly underdressed in my t-shirt and jeans as Jero took the stage looking so slick in a royal blue matching suit – jacket, slacks, and vest – with matching blue baseball cap, a diamond-shaped pendant on a silver chain around his neck adding that dash of hip-hop flair, and white sneakers as spotless and shiny as if they were perfectly brand new. The balance between formal and hip could not be more perfect. How I wish I had a suit like that. Sometimes, often, what looks great on stage doesn’t really translate to everyday life. But this, somehow, this I think could work. And with enough self-confidence, I think I could pull it off properly.
Boy does Jero have style.
The night began, surprisingly, not with the performance, but with the interview portion of the program, as Jero sat down with John Wheeler, former executive vice president of Japan Society and Japan scholar in his own right. Wheeler played the role of James Lipton, asking Jero about his Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother and their influence upon him as a performer, as well as about difficulties he faces as a young, black, American, trying to make it in a musical genre that, some might say, is all about expressing a distinctively Japanese soul. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him say that he has been welcomed with open arms by the enka community.
Not that I truly pictured any of the performers, or fans, as cold or xenophobic types, particularly nationalistic, and arguing that only a Japanese could possibly understand enka. But, I guess the truly surprising and interesting part about this is that Jero says he often feels he is treated as if he were Japanese – because he is 1/4 Japanese, because he speaks Japanese, and perhaps most of all because he sings enka, people treat him as though he grew up in Japan and can be trusted to think the same way as they do. Thus, conversely to what we might expect (and what we foreigners experience on a daily basis), Jero says that he actually runs into the problem of people being shocked or confused when he makes some kind of linguistic or cultural mistake. Because they think of him as Japanese, as operating on the same assumptions and fundamental cultural understandings as someone born and raised in Japan.
I was struck by his skills of being onstage. After the interview, in between songs, he spoke briefly to the audience. That there was a tiny bit of awkwardness to all of this because it was in English was palpable. Jero is, of course, a native speaker of English, and as American, born and raised, as most people in the room, but still, it was clear that this was something he had much more experience doing in Japanese, and in fact that many of us (or myself at least) sort of felt should have been in Japanese – doing it in English, though understandably necessary, broke with the Japanese experience mindset we had entered into with the songs. Just like good theatre can carry you into its world, and make you forget your consciousness of being an audience member in a seat in a theatre, so here too the songs carried us into a world of enka, a setting where we expect Japanese greetings and commentary in between songs.
In any case, that aside (and of course we got used to it after the first moment or two), I thought it interesting how he has learned to do this sort of thing. To know what to say to an audience in between songs, to interact with an audience in this way. Just because you’re a good singer, just because you have a good voice, doesn’t mean you’re a good performer, and just because you’re a good performer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at this particular thing, this “hello, how is everyone doing? I’m so glad to be here tonight. Thank you for coming. This next song is really special to me because …” thing. There were moments when I felt like he was a young man still starting out, still learning to do this sort of thing, and not “struggling” per se, not at all, but experimenting, just playing it by ear and hoping it goes well. But, then, there were other times when he really seemed, if not the seasoned veteran, certainly the professional, who has done this numerous times and knows what he’s doing and is perfectly comfortable on stage. Jero had his big break in 2008, and as recent as that seems in my mind, it’s been a whole four years since then. He’s had three or four singles, and at least five cover albums. Plenty of opportunities to practice speaking in public, beyond just being a good singer.
Jero’s debut single, Umiyuki:
I feel bad to share such an old & standard video. I love Umiyuki, but there are so many other songs… The suit he wears in this video is particularly, well, something.
The songs he sang the other night were incredible. Some, songs written for him, debuted by him, such as Umiyuki (one of my personal favorites), and his newest single, Yoake no kaze; others, old enka standards. But while I didn’t really get much out of listening to him do these covers when I listened to them on mp3, or on YouTube, the first time around, now that I have seen him perform them in concert, somehow it was quite different, and I feel a rejuvenated interest in buying his cover albums and listening, whether it’s new songs or old standards. Enka can be a difficult genre to get into, or rather, a difficult one to stay with, once the novelty fades. The first few times you hear enka, the emotionality can be quite powerful, or impressive, touching, or interesting. But soon it all starts to sound the same. I find that for me it comes in waves. I really enjoy enka best when I haven’t heard too much of it in a while. It’s like Coca-Cola that way.
Jero mentioned a new music video in which he transforms into a samurai. I’ll keep an eye out for it.