U.S. star's hip-hop moves spark Japan folk song craze

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Jerome White Jr moves like a U.S. rap star and sings like a Japanese crooner.

The 26-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has stormed the charts here with his soulful version of a traditional folk song -- sung in perfect Japanese, which White, known as “Jero”, learned from his Japanese grandmother.

Enka, a type of Japanese folk music known for its nostalgic lyrics, tends to attract an older crowd. But last week, thousands of fans of all ages gathered in downtown Tokyo to hear Japan’s latest music sensation perform his debut single: “Umiyuki” (Ocean Snow).

“I nearly fainted when I first saw him. He’s so cute!” said Mika Yamamoto, a 26-year-old fan who, like many of Jero’s fans, wore her hair in tight “corn row” braids.

“Umiyuki” has hovered at the top of the charts since it was released on February 20, and newspapers say no other Enka song has had a comparable mainstream success in Japan, the world’s second-largest music market.

“Jero’s soulful singing is different from Japanese Enka singers. It struck me so hard I cried when I first heard it,” said 56-year-old Chieko Ohashi.

With his hip-hop dance moves, baggy trousers and baseball cap, Jero has managed to create an urban cool version of Enka that appeals to younger fans.

“People who listen to Enka are, you know, a little bit older, but I’m trying to get Enka more into the mainstream, get more young people to listen to Enka too,” Jero told Reuters in an interview while promoting his debut single.

Jero’s Japanese grandmother, who moved to the United States with her African-American husband after World War Two, taught him her language as well as the traditional songs she loved.

“Enka is something that connected me with my grandmother and my family and as well as Japan,” Jero said.

“I think if I wasn’t introduced to it, I would never have come to Japan. I don’t think I would’ve even learned Japanese so at a very young age when I started listening to it, I kind of decided right then this is what I wanted to do,” he said.

To pursue his dream of becoming an Enka singer, he moved to Japan after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003 with a degree in information sciences.

He sang his way through karaoke competitions while working as a computer engineer, winning awards before eventually being noticed by Japanese record executives.

And despite the years of hard work and his chart-topping success, his musical fame may be short-lived -- there are hundreds of Enka singers in Japan, and most of them come and go in a flash.