Sing a Song

May 7, 2001

Thailand hosts a wide range of telephone services. Horoscopes, weather forecasts, psychic insights, betting advice, adult talk, TV guides, horror stories, chat lines, and game shows can all be dialed for a fee. So can karaoke numbers. Just phone up, sing along with your favourite song, and wait for the bill. Paying money to sing into a telephone sounds like a failing business idea to me but it is proving itself quite popular in karaoke fever land, otherwise known as Thailand.

There is an enormous wealth of talented voices to be heard. From a hotel lobby lounge singer to my neighbours’ backyards, good voices abound. Rural life in Thailand often does not include stereo equipment. It is common to see people singing around a guitar player instead. But when the opportunity presents itself, everyone goes running for the karaoke microphone. And let’s not forget all of those karaoke videos for sale everywhere.

Singing is a very big pastime in Thailand. People sing while they070501k1.jpg work, sing while they drive, and sing just to sing. Most home stereos come equipped with karaoke capabilities and people are proud about the quality of microphones they own. A friend of mine performs karaoke at his house and records it. He then plays the tapes in his car.

Karaoke clubs thrive and karaoke machines can be found at your little neighbourhood bar or your office canteen. These machines replace the jukebox. Put in a few coins, choose your song, and get singing! No one seems shy about it. At some offices heading to the canteen to sing a few songs with colleagues before heading home is common. You can order a few beers for the occasion if you want to. Picture this happening at your own office and perhaps you might have a chuckle or two.

It is surprising to see how many Thais know the words to so many songs even without the karaoke monitor to prompt them. If you attend a local concert, more often than not the crowd is louder than the band. Groups of singing070501k2.jpg picnickers in the park can fly through an entire song without floundering around for the words.

Perhaps it helps that most of the popular Thai music is quite mellow. Pop songs, country songs, and jazz are the most prominently heard sounds. Heavy metal, rap, or super hard rock has not taken over Thailand yet. When this happens, the words will become infinitely more difficult to figure out.

Thailand’s love for karaoke can be seen in the advertisements hanging out in front of some hotels. Luring customers by listing: ‘Cable TV, Restaurant, Pool, Karaoke Lounge, Billiards Room, and Fitness Studio’ helps to illustrate this point. My favourite part about karaoke lounges is that (more often than not) they are out-of-this-world tacky.

Karaoke bars are big fun. Not only do they provide music, but food and drink too. No one will force you to get up there (except perhaps your own friends). I guarantee you will be shocked at the length and scope of the song list. English070501k3.jpg songs ranging from Led Zeppelin to Frank Sinatra can be found even at the smallest of karaoke venues. German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and French songs also make the play lists. And there is always the standard and extensive list of Thai songs too.

I used to think karaoke was just a big joke. Back in the United States there is a small scattering of karaoke bars. I remember a place in South Carolina that had weekly karaoke competitions. Ironically, the person who won almost every week was tone deaf. She was so bad she was good.

Karaoke is taken more seriously in Thailand. It’s no laughing matter when the microphone comes your way. A sixteen-year-old boy I know once drank a wine cooler. The next minute he was up on stage singing with the band, and we weren’t even at a karaoke club!

Singing and I do not mix. Sometimes while listening to a great song I might pick up a fork or pen and sing into it for kicks but no one was ever around. I once participated in singing Thai songs by using the English phonetics written on the bottom of the screen. A total disaster. And once there were some Billy Joel songs and a group of friends late at night. Be grateful that you missed it.

Don’t worry, I have never seen anyone booed off stage nor have I seen any tomatoes getting tossed. The worst thing that can happen is your microphone getting turned down or a clever friend sneaking along a tape recorder. There are also private karaoke rooms for rent if one wishes to make it a more formal and less public occasion.

Karaoke fever illustrated itself with full gusto this past weekend. The dive boat I was on had a two-hour trip back to land. The captain and crew make this trip two times every day. Sound boring? Wrong. The crews on all the various ships in the area took turns singing to each other over their radios as we chugged back to land.

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