It’s probably another of those “you’ve been in Japan too long when…” things when you start liking enka. Let’s face it – there’s plenty not to like. The melodies all sound the same, there are usually only two or three chords, the singers get hyper-emotional and the lyrics are mostly about broken love affairs. Still, when you think about it, all that could be said about the Blues, one of my favourite kinds of music since Clapton was reading the Beano on the cover of that John Mayall album. Enka’s another of those hybrid music forms (like reggae, rai, bhangra…), a sort of crossing of Japanese folk tunes with Western instruments, usually lots of keyboards, drums, an orchestra somewhere and a screaming lead guitar in the distance. The singers use the same kind of vocal embellishments you hear in min’yo folk, and some of them are actually quite good, once you get used to the sticky sentimentality of it all.
There’s even an American enka singer called Jero. I think his grandmother’s Japanese, but he’s a real native-English-speaking American, backwards baseball cap and everything. Really good singer though, in perfect Japanese. Now, what I’m getting to is: the other day on the car radio someone put on an enka song sung in English – not by Jero as it turned out, but by a Japanese singer. It’s on Youtube if you want a listen. It’s horrible. Doesn’t work at all. OK there might be some problems with the English translation itself, or possibly with the guy’s pronunciation, though it doesn’t sound that bad, but the basic issue is that enka just sounds wrong in English. Doesn’t work.
It’s the same with food. There are many kinds of soy sauce made all over Asia – Thai light soy and Indonesian sweet kecap manis are delicious, for example – but if you want to eat sashimi, raw fish, then nothing but Japanese soy sauce will work. It will just taste wrong dipped in anything else. Now, I have to agree that Koreans also have good raw fish, eaten with garlic and chilli paste as well as soy sauce, but if you regard that as a separate dish then my case still stands. Also for location. Now that sushi (different from sashimi btw) is popular worldwide there are “sushi restaurants” everywhere. The other week on TV there was a restaurant somewhere in Europe maybe, dark wood panelling, customer sitting at a small marble table being brought sushi on a tray by a dark-suited waiter… NO! NO! That’s ridiculous. You have to eat sushi sitting at a counter in a small place where the man who makes it is standing opposite you choosing the choicest morsels of fish from the glass case between you. Preferably while sipping sake, though beer might be grudgingly permitted.
João Gilberto once said that bossa nova had to be sung in Portuguese. Some things just don’t go.