This spring break I went with my family to Washington D.C. because, as my dad put it, “It’s just one of those places you gotta see before you die.”
In the mist of visiting numerous monuments, government buildings, and state libraries we had the fortune of being able to attend the opening ceremony of the 2009 National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The two-week long festival is not only meant to celebrate the coming of spring but also commemorates the gift of Japanese cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington on March 27, 1912.
There were a variety of spectacular performances at the opening ceremony, including a “Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms” dance by The Washington Ballet, a unique display of freestyle hip-hop fused with contemporary and ethnic dance by Kenichi Ebina, and traditional taiko drumming and tap dancing by Cobu, the all-female Live Rhythm Performing Arts ensemble that evolved off the off-Broadway hit STOMP.
REVERED ENKA SINGER JERO PERFORMS AT FESTIVAL
But the performance that most captivated the audience, including myself, was by Jero, the hit African-American enka singer from Japan. Originally from Pittsburgh and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jero was recently named “Best New Artist” in Japan after his debut album entered the charts in the top 10.
Jero first began pursuing his dream to become an enka artist because of the influence of his Japanese grandmother Takiko, who had met his grandfather, an African-American serviceman, at a dance during World War II. They married, had a daughter, Harumi – now a department store sales clerk – and eventually moved to his grandfather’s hometown, Pittsburgh. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was reared amid a strong sense of Japanese culture.
For those who don’t know, enka is a musical genre in Japan comparable to American country and western music, where the singer uses a wide range of vocal styles including drawn-out notes with a swelling vibrato to emphasize emotional content. Though it is considered to be more “traditional” music and tends to appeal to older generations, Jero’s youthful contemporary hip-hop image combined with his soulful voice has managed to draw audiences of young and old alike. Most listeners who encounter his music for the first time are amazed to discover that he is not a native Japanese singer.
Although this was the first time I have encountered Jero or enka music in general, it was both comforting and refreshing to see Japanese culture flourish at our nation’s capital, knowing that diversity is still alive and kicking well into the 21st century.
For more information about the festival, check out nationalcherryblossomfestival.org
-posted by Shirley Mak