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Karaoke Singer

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How much do people love karaoke? Well, one record-breaking group of singers loved it enough to sing along to their favorite tunes for a week straight.

Karaoke is a phenomenon now found in hit movies and TV. This pastime invented by and for the Japanese is gaining fans of all ages worldwide.

If you like to sing in the shower or the car, karaoke may be just the hobby for you. Karaoke (pronounced keri-O-ki) involves singing along to pre-recorded music as the lyrics scroll by on a video screen -- usually to the shouts of encouraging crowds.

You'll have plenty of company in this hobby. Since it began in Japan around 20 years ago, millions of people around the world have performed karaoke either in the privacy of their homes or in crowded clubs. Some estimate that there are nearly one million enthusiastic karaoke singers in North America alone.

"Karaoke" means "empty orchestra" -- what music tapes in Japan were called when only the musical accompaniment was recorded.

It got its start in the western Japanese city of Kobe, where businesspeople enjoyed it as a unique form of after-work stress relief. It quickly caught on in Japan, and arrived on North American shores not long after.

Today, karaoke is everywhere, having changed its format over the years from tapes to laser to CD and now DVD. Home computers can now become personal karaoke machines. Karaoke jockeys, or "KJs," bring their machines and song libraries to clubs, private parties and special events.

Northern California KJ Bob Hall has over 7,800 songs in his database. His business, Bob's Karaoke Unlimited and Mobile DJ, began 10 years ago. That's when Hall, an air force sergeant by day, won an international military talent contest and realized just how much he loved to sing.

When he started going to karaoke clubs to exercise his talent, he found the experience therapeutic.

"It was just after my divorce, and it was a kind of release," says Hall. "And I've always loved music, so it was great to go out and be with people who loved it too. Of course, it was hard at first -- I never looked at the other people, just the screen. But today, it's a whole different story."

Hall turned his passion into a business that now pulls in $30,000 per year. He hosts everything from top 40 hits at fraternity parties to Elvis Presley standards (he's an impersonator, too) for the older crowds.

He usually warms up a room by getting everyone to sing a great classic together. Pretty soon, everyone's having a turn onstage.

"At first, people are a bit shy and afraid," says Hall. "But after a while, you really see the change. Singing is a great self-motivator and self-confidence builder."

Kimberley Heinecke uses karaoke to brighten the lives of people with special needs. Her karaoke business, Songs Interchange, tours a lot more than the bar circuit. She takes her equipment to old age homes, legion halls, hostels and hospitals.

One of Heinecke's favorite places to go is a home for people with mental illnesses. She says the first time she went, a worker told her it would probably just be a short show.

"Wrong!" she says. "They sang for four hours straight. They loved it, and they're always asking for me back. They're just the best and most willing people to get up and sing. And you'd be amazed by the voices! Medicated or not, they sing pretty darn good.

"The second time I went, a lady that worked there took me aside and said, 'I don't know what it is, but it's like you're reaching the souls of the people.' I told her, it's not me, it's the music. It's something in all of us."

If it's hard enough to get people to sing one song in front of friends and strangers, try making them sing for a week.

That's what karaoke enthusiast Alex Zarbo has done in past by organizing the annual Karaoke Campathon. People go to a beach each summer to camp, sing and break world records. The 1998 179-hour world record was set by hundreds of people Zarbo rallied together.

"It started as an attempt to break the world record, which we did," says Zarbo. "Now it's also become a way to attract more people to karaoke while drawing media attention. That's my biggest goal."

Zarbo runs A-Z Lazer, his full-time karaoke business, while doing a lot to raise karaoke awareness. He does a monthly live broadcast over the Internet from The Bovine Club, a hip venue where the younger crowd goes to belt out their favorite tunes to the world.

Zarbo says this multigenerational appeal makes karaoke a success everywhere it goes.

"It's based on the idea that anybody can do it," says Zarbo. "It's not a competition. It unites everybody who likes to sing -- people from all walks of life come together to share this common ground, in a fun social environment."

Getting Started

Getting started in karaoke has never been easier. The Internet has become a meeting ground for thousands of karaoke singers from around the world.

You can find the words to almost any song through lyric sites. And you can download music from karaoke sites. Most home computers can play recordings while scrolling the lyrics past as well.

Professional-quality karaoke machines are less expensive than ever. But most still cost several hundred to several thousand dollars. Some party supply stores offer machines for rent, typically between $85 and $160 per day.

Karaoke jockeys will perform at parties for varying fees as well, bringing their personal flair and their collection of songs. Zarbo charges from $175 to $250 per session.

Many karaoke singers gravitate to the same musical styles. Impersonating Elvis is a popular karaoke phenomenon and a personal favorite of Hall's. Country songs and ballads with easy-to-remember lyrics are very popular.

Karaoke now reflects youth and contemporary musical tastes as well, with hip-hop, rap and alternative songs finding their way into karaoke catalogs almost as soon as they're on the radio.

Certain cultural differences separate North American karaoke singers from their Japanese originals. For most enthusiasts here, half the thrill is being in the spotlight.

Most Japanese singers enjoy it more as a private affair. So-called "karaoke boxes" allow the Japanese to sing in private, soundproof booths, while KJ-run karaoke shows are more popular in North America.

"In Japan, it's a lot less show-offy," says Zarbo. "You get more performers here. People like to be a star, if only for one song."


Karaoke: The Bible,
by  Thomas Gonda

Karaoke Scene Magazine

Features include a searchable song archive and karaoke chat

Computer Karaoke
Directions on how to play karaoke on your home computer
A site for visitors to learn about the history of karaoke

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