On a rainy weekday night, the streets of Helsinki slumber. The scene is unadulterated Nordic Noir.
The rush hour has passed and the harsh sea wind, typical for autumn and winter in this Nordic city, has driven the crowds indoors.
And indoors means karaoke. Dive into any bar in the Finnish capital and you could suddenly be in Tokyo or Osaka.
But why is karaoke, invented in Kobe, Japan, by Daisuke Inoue in 1971 – and which literally means ‘empty orchestra’ – so popular in this Nordic outpost?
‘For exactly the same reason it became popular in Japan,’ says Atte Hujanen, chief executive of Singa, the company that invented an online platform for singing karaoke, often called ‘the Spotify of karaoke.’
‘Karaoke was born out of Japanese repressed emotions, which they couldn’t talk about at work or at home,’ says Hujanen. ‘So they began expressing them through singing. Finns, too, are taciturn folk, for whom expressing feelings is not taken for granted. It feels easier for us to sing about them, which is where karaoke comes in.’
For the rest of the world, karaoke might appear a ham-fisted, off-key way to end a drunken night in a rundown bar. But for Finns it is something very dear. They sing karaoke in public and at home with their family, at company parties and on casual nights out with friends. Most do it enthusiastically, some ironically, others forcibly, encouraged by a few drinks. In short, karaoke brings the nation together.
Hujanen and his karaoke-loving family also founded the Karaoke World Championships (karaokeworldchampionships.com) in 2003. The event has made a name for itself and attracts hopefuls from up to 30 countries. This year’s championships will be staged next month at the Apollo Live Club in Helsinki.
Hujanen founded Singa in 2010 after he came to the conclusion that karaoke was a million-dollar business in need of modernisation.
The time of the karaoke DVD has passed, says Hujanen. ‘Today, around 300 bars in Europe use Singa. Our platform makes it possible to sing karaoke anywhere there is a mobile device and internet connection.’
Of course, like every self-respecting Finn, Hujanen also has a favourite karaoke song.
‘I usually start with something peculiar enough to break the ice and encourage others to step out on the floor,’ he says. ‘It’s AC/DC’s Big Balls.’ Here are five spots around the world to flex that larynx.
1. Yes R&B, Bangkok
Choose from 30 differently styled rooms and sing the night away in this colourful Thonglor neighbourhood favourite. yesrandb.com
2. Populus, Helsinki
This bar in the Kallio neighbourhood is open 24 hours and suits anyone unfazed by less elegant surrounds. The atmosphere can get quite bizarre in the wee hours… karaokebar.net/populus
3. Karaoke-kan, Tokyo
Karaoke may have been invented in Kobe, but nowhere is it more popular than Tokyo, which hosts countless karaoke spots. But one stands out: Karaoke-kan in Shibuya – which featured in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters enjoy a singalong in rooms 600 and 601. You can also borrow costumes (everything from Pikachu to mermaid outfits and wigs) for free. karaokekan.jp
4. Lucky Voice, UK & Dubai
Lucky Voice has numerous locations in the UK and one in Dubai, each with more than 9,000 songs on the menu – from current chart-toppers to old school classics (Dancing Queen, anyone?). Private booths fit up to 15 people. luckyvoice.com
5. The Derby, Hong Kong
This small pub next to Happy Valley Racecourse is not swish and definitely not artisan, but the long suffering Filipino backing band is game if you are. And singers at The Derby, whatever their standard, are always welcome. 80-82 Morrison Hill Road, Causeway Bay