Music

Asia’s weird obsession with karaoke

The singing pastime comes from Japan, but the Philippines has taken it to the next level. By REX AGUADO

The family that sings together, stays together. This wisdom might apply across Asia, where karaoke is a revered pastime – after all, harmony is a trademark of Asian societies and families. But as a Filipino, I would posit: nowhere in the world is it practised as passionately as the Philippines.

Let me describe one karaoke party I attended, a family celebration in central Philippines. People here are known for their musicality, which might have something to do with the Latino streak in their shared history, and there are certain customs that come with family karaoke. Household pecking order is important. The youngest members of the clan go first, then parents and aunts and uncles. Although several sang Frank Sinatra classics, everybody seemed to be avoiding the pièce de résistance, My Way: they were saving it for last.

So much passion has this song inspired on the karaoke floor in the Philippines that there’s even a phenomenon – the ‘My Way killings’ – of a handful of deaths that have resulted from violence over unsatisfactory renditions. For the finale at this family party, the clan’s oldest member, a youthful great-grandfather in his 90s, took the stage and gave his soul- and eardrum-piercing performance. He was out of tune, he kept missing key bits of lyrics, his tempo was off – yet he got a five-minute standing ovation. Talk about clan harmony. 

Some of us Filipinos love karaoke so much, we claim it as a Pinoy invention. That honour actually goes to Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue, who created the first karaoke box in 1971. But it was Filipino Roberto del Rosario who patented it a few years later.

Nevertheless, nearly every Philippine household has a karaoke system, and singing happens on the street and public squares.

Singalong novices – Asian or otherwise – should take note of karaoke etiquette outside the family setting. A few useful rules: let the boss or your date’s mum sing first. Wait your turn even if they belt through an entire album. If they hand you the mic, be bashful – let them push, pull and drag you on stage. Make sure you don’t repeat what’s been sung. And most of all, remember to go off tempo and sing out of tune. You’ll discover that the more octaves you stray from the original tune, the more cultural gaps you’ve bridged – and the more business deals you’ve won.

But always remember that in the Philippines, karaoke is serious business. Doing things your way can have lethal consequences.

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