Forget shoe shine benches — now there’s airport karaoke!

When I’m waiting for a flight, I like to dive into a book or pop open my laptop and try to forget my surroundings. Other travelers tend to annoy me, and I have a better time in transit if I can just ignore everyone else. So I’ll be avoiding Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston from now on.

The Texas airport has recently set up karaoke booths for travelers inside the terminals. Airport assistant manager Caroline Schneider says that they hope singing will help travelers relieve some stress and anxiety. The singers will be awarded small prizes.

They get points for creativity, but I just don’t think karaoke belongs in an airport. Travelers who are already edgy are not going to be the ones stepping up to the mic, and will probably only be further aggravated if their gate is next to the group of tone deaf teenagers stumbling through the words to “Love Potion #9.”

I love karaoke, really, but I think it belongs in a bar — one where the drinks aren’t $8 apiece. I suspect that this new airport karaoke will bother more folks than it will entertain, but maybe I’m just being a typical travel grouch. What do you think? Cute idea, or good intentions gone very, very wrong?

Spain to “dance the chiki chiki” at Eurovision 2008

What’s a country to do when two million residents vote for a man who calls himself Rodolfo Chikilicuatre and looks like an exaggerated (not to mention distorted) version of Elvis, to represent their country in this year’s Eurovision?

Although condemned by the press, there is nothing that can be done but laugh and join in the “chiki chiki”!

Eurovision is one of the longest running television programs in the world. It’s a singing competition where each country sends a representative; the day of the contest, all participants must sing their respective songs live as the European audience votes for the best song.

Being a continent-wide singing competition, the contest is generally taken seriously, but the Spanish people seem to have a different definition of that as they chose to send the contestant they found most absurd and hilarious. The representing song “Baila Chiki Chiki” is a rap reggaton that includes reference to politicians and to grandmothers waving knickers in the air as they dance the “chiki chiki”. Go Spain!

The word is that our Spanish chiki chiki will only face competition from Ireland’s rubber turkey puppet Dustin. The contest this year in on May 24 in Belgrade.

Band on the Run: My First and Last Gig as a Hawaiian Wedding Singer

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The wedding was beautiful. I sang my songs. There were two white doves that expertly landed right behind the bride and groom during the ceremony. People cried. Then, they were married. My sister is now a wife and I got a brother-in-law in the deal. I’d say I fared fairly well, if you ask me.

People came up to me afterwards and asked if I would be singing at the reception. I said “No, I’m done” and then smiled happily and they looked at me sadly. Relief must have flowed out from the shape of my lips in that particular smile and I mistakenly conveyed to a number of people a series of possible misunderstandings: either I was glad it was all over because I didn’t enjoy it, or was nervous and was relieved to be over the nerves, or was unhappy with my performance or was simply bitter at having had to sing at my sister’s wedding — none of which were true!

“You have such a beautiful voice, dear, we’d love to hear you sing some more.” This was always delivered encouragingly and as though I ought not to deprive everyone of my voice and music for the rest of the day. I realized that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone here that gigging at a family wedding was the last thing I wanted to do more of. It’s just not my thing. It’s a one-time experience and I am glad it’s done. I was happy to have made my sister happy with the gift of song, but was equally happy that the gift had been delivered.

I thanked them for their kindness but explained that there was already entertainment planned at the reception.

I also silently thanked the universe for not having pre-decided that I’d be it.

The reception was held on a boat. It was a dinner boat cruise called “The Maui Princess” and there were about one hundred and twenty diners, only forty of whom were part of the wedding party.

There, on the main deck, was a woman and a guitar and a device that played the backing tracks for dozens of famous songs. She was installed behind two metal railings and the sound system piped through both the main deck and up to the upper deck where the dinners were served. Her spot was right in front of the restrooms. She played for three hours and I felt increasing sympathy the longer her gig stretched.

And increasing gratitude that it was her and not me who was employed in this capacity.

She played a series of famous songs and chose fairly well. She had to do certain songs like the Hawaiian Love Song (ever heard of it? Me neither, until now) but generally she chose some good songs by Sting, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, even Bonnie Tyler (and you know the one!) And her guitar chops were pretty good.

Still, I felt for her. In between songs, she was obligated to make announcements about the ship’s progress, to tell people not to bang on the railings, to let people know about the “safety features on the vessel.” For me, this would be the closest thing to truly being a “flight attendant” (which I sing about in my song “Ten Pin” as a metaphor for performing a gig where no one is paying attention to you) although I guess in this case you’d have to call it “doubling as a ‘float’ attendant” (har har) because her job was so multi-faceted.

The cruise was brief but enjoyable. About two hours of beautiful scenery and free alcohol. Well, three per person but there was hardly any moving to get more at the bar as the chairs were bolted to the deck and everyone had a hard time getting around.

I brought my own food (no vegan fare was possible in the set menus) and I ate leftover veggie sushi to my table partners’ envy. Their meals were good too, they said, but mine looked especially appetizing and fresh. I wondered if that was the moment where I should have shared, but I just smiled and said “oh, how rare it is that my fellow diners are jealous of my food! Eat your heart out!” and took a big mouthful. They laughed.

(Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the upper hand when meat eaters so often drill me about how I could possibly have enough energy to survive eating as I do. My answer is generally that I haven’t eaten meat or fish for seventeen and a half years, so I guess I’m surviving. Thriving even! That usually shuts people up unless they are particularly obnoxious…)

Just before we docked, the crew started to dump the unconsumed Mai Tai (mixed Hawaiin drinks) into the ocean. I hated to see this. I mean, sure it’s not toxic waste, but does the ocean really need alcohol and corn syrup and food colouring? I don’t think so. On second thought, do we?

The whole wedding party then headed for drinks at another location where my sister wanted to have the traditional “first dance” with her new husband and then “the second dance” with our father. The restaurant manager heard her say this and was very clear that it simply wasn’t possible. Apparently, if there’s dancing on the premises, it reclassifies the venue as a bar and then changes the nature of their liquor license.

My sister looked crestfallen when she got this news and while the manager was still standing there, I piped in “Well, what if we dance on the sidewalk?” There was a pause and then the manager looked at me thoughtfully and she said, “Uh, you could do that. We don’t own the sidewalk! That’d be fine.” She smiled wistfully at the idea, I thought, and headed back behind the bar.

And so that’s what they did.

A portable music player was brought out and the gathering of wedding goers took to the sidewalk and we all watched my sister and her new husband dance (to “Amazed“) and then my sister and father dance (and simultaneously cry on each other’s shoulders to “I Loved Her First“) and then the night came to a close.

I had made it through a whole day in heels.

And my Hawaiian wedding singing days are over.


(which simultaneously means “hello,” “good-bye” and “love” as well as “mercy,” “compassion” and “peace.”)

A Canadian in Beijing: Food is Free at KTV

I know that I already posted about the inevitability of karaoke here in China. What I haven’t told you about yet is the amazing KTV phenomenon. Here in Beijing, there are several locations of KTV, or “Partyworld” as it’s also called, where people come to sing karaoke as a social activity. I’m not talking about a bar here that has one karaoke machine.

This is a karaoke factory.

It seems like this is one of the most popular activities here. After going out to a bar and drinking several drinks, people often come to KTV and sing all night long. In fact, after midnight, it is significantly cheaper and a person can book a six-hour block from midnight until six a.m. And, many people do.

Not to mention the fact that food is free after midnight.

(Musician Rule #1: Go for the free food!)

These establishments are like giant hotels. At least, that’s what they resemble aesthetically, but the rooms you are renting aren’t for sleeping; they’re for singing. Group after group file into KTV and then disappear into private sound-proofed rooms to hold a microphone in a death grip and belt it out until the wee hours.

You arrive into a marble lobby with plush chairs and staff in uniforms. They usher you upstairs to one of the floors with available rooms (and sometimes they’re all booked up!) and then you are given a private room that consists of several couches, tables, a television (on which the karaoke videos and lyrics are displayed), a closet for your things and sometimes even an adjoining bathroom. Oh, and there are also percussion instruments available just in case you want to bang along. Brightly coloured, they reminded me of kid’s toys and so I bounded over to them and made a racket for a few minutes in the spirit of my inner child.

Each room has a number on the door and a circular window so that the staff can peer in to make sure all is going well and you aren’t in need of any additional beverages. It almost makes me think of a ship, these circular windows, and it made me chuckle quietly to myself whenever a server’s head would pop up in the circular window with curious eyes.

But, last but not least, the number one thing about KTV is the free food after midnight. There is a huge cafeteria-style kitchen area and between midnight and one a.m. (I’m pretty sure it’s an hour long buffet, though it could be two hours?), the food is completely free and there for the taking. So, after the night of partying, this is the place where people come to eat and then continue partying! Alcohol is not free, but non-alcholic drinks are. Both can be delivered right to your room by placing an order with a server.

When I was there, the diversity of the other KTV attendees was astounding. There were groups of young teenagers and groups of businessmen in suits and ties. Everyone looked happy and full of melody. People were singing in the hallways and humming songs as they chose food around the cafeteria. Here, singing is normal and not something just done in the shower or in the shy privacy of one’s home. And singing well is not a prerequisite. On the contrary. I think the appropriate way to sing here is just with enthusiasm… and spirit. Yes, that’s exactly it.

When I walked back to our room with my loaded food tray, I was amused by all the different sounding songs I heard coming from the various rooms. These songs were in what sounded like the insulated distance because of the soundproofing, but outside of each room they could still be heard faintly.

As I was walking slowly along the corridor, one of the doors swung open and another customer exited their room. As the door widened, it was like a vacuum of sound had been released into my ears. I saw inside for that instant and caught sight of a middle-aged man clinging to his microphone with both hands and giving it all he had. He was bent at the knees and his head was thrown back, eyes closed and focused, shirt and tie dishevelled and loosened. He was singing in Chinese and he was pouring his heart into the words. When the door swung shut once more, the image was gone and the sound was muffled again. It was just a flash but this visual will stay with me and will forever be associated with the three letters: KTV.

It was his big moment. . .

I smiled and continued down to the hall to our room and my group of friends. When I came in, two of them were in the midst of a cheesy eighties duet and singing into each other’s eyes. The rest were sprawled on the couches or sitting on stools and watching either the singers or the videos with mild interest.

I say “mild” because these videos are terrible. They’re not the original videos, of course, and sometimes the cinematography is atrocious. Especially for the English songs, they are really outdated images showing non-Asian people dressed in eighties or early nineties fashions parading across the screen. The transcription of the lyrics, too, is often wrong. Sometimes it’s so wrong that it’s hilarious, rendering us unable to sing anymore because we are laughing so hard.

What a crazy experience.

Here is a place where people can pretend they’re performing for thousands of people in the way they deliver the lyrics and pose with the microphone, but it’s just your group of friends or family looking on as though this is normal. And, after a few moments, it is normal. Anything is normal if you let it normalize, right?! In the end, there is really no performance going on at all. It’s just about singing. It’s therapeutic. It’s cathartic.

It’s the release.

The eating, drinking and socializing is a sidebar. In fact, some of my friends like to sing for six hours straight and never get tired.

That’s not me.

After my food, I was ready for bed. I took my leave after singing a few cheesy tunes like “The Greatest Love of All” and “Somewhere Out There” with my friend (it’s a duet, of course!) The English language selection is wide but super cheesy. Despite being a lover of some cheesy eighties songs (ach-hem… like Air Supply’s entire catalogue, as mentioned), I can only listen for so long before I’m ready to move on.

I left humming a tune, of course. I’m not sure which song exactly, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that my vocal chords were being used and celebrated.

I always say that everyone can sing. It’s true. Everyone can.

KTV makes it possible.

And popular.

A Canadian in Beijing: The Inevitability of Karaoke

I really don’t enjoy karaoke. I’m sure it comes from the fact that it had a peak of popularity in North America during my high school years – a time that I don’t often enjoy recollecting!

I started to perform live when I was ten and so all of my classmates knew that I had a “nice voice” and I was often cajoled and dragged and/or berated into singing at various parties and school events. Usually, the songs were cheesy love songs with bad keyboard sounds and wind chimes. Whitney Houston was a favourite, I recall, as was “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers.

When I hear the word “karaoke,” I feel a rush of an ancient mortification being unearthed in my body.

I remember being worried that the pitch would be wrong for my voice or the words hard to see on the screen. I can see my classmates looking at me expectantly and remember feeling impossibly shy without a guitar or my own songs to sing, fearing letting everyone down. . . and then missing the opening line of the song because of all the over-thinking I was doing. I was a typical teenager and typically awkward in those settings.

Eventually, I started to hate karaoke and when I was solicited to sing, I would root my feet firmly where I stood and refuse to go up and sing “other people’s songs” as though this were an affront to my artistry. In all honesty, I was scared to death. I built that whole phoney stance around my fears. I suppose this is a human response, but being here in Beijing has forced me to acknowledge it.

Because really, karaoke isn’t that evil.

The psychological effects of karaoke aside (!), it was inevitable that I would have to face my fears here in China. Singing is very related to partying here. There is often a karaoke option in clubs or restaurants and people are just accustomed to getting up and singing after they’ve enjoyed a meal and had a few drinks. It’s a cultural experience, shall we say.

In fact, when I discuss my DVD with people here, I have to explain that it is not a karaoke DVD. Videos here are most commonly karaoke videos (with the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen) and many homes have microphone attachments to their VCRs so that friends and family can sing along to the videos being played on the screen. It is popular, to say the least.

On Wednesday night, I was invited to a party by my friend Zou Rui. She is a professional singer and she has a beautiful voice and several karaoke DVDs. She truly does have an incredible voice. It’s one of the loveliest voices I have heard in a long time.

She was invited to this party by her teacher, a singing coach, who also works for the government. When I arrived, I noticed that we were two of only five women in a room of over fifty people (not counting the waitresses.) I was the only foreigner and everyone came over to greet me and clinked my glass to say hello (in English) and toast my arrival. I was drinking juice, which was a good thing, because it was regularly being emptied with every greeting; had it been beer, I would have been drunk within twenty minutes!

We then sat down to eat and the food was fantastic. Yet another example of the hot pot, but in this case each person had their own “cook station” which meant that I could be comfortably and independently vegan at this table. I enjoyed every bite but was amazed by the amount of food that was not eaten. So much waste! To compensate, I ate more than my fill and felt grateful to have been invited to join in.

After the meal, the karaoke machine started to hum, the t.v. monitors lit up and Zou Rui got up to start the entertainment. She sang a few songs to everyone’s great delight and mine included. Turns out that she knew she was supposed sing and she encouraged others to get up with her and do various duets of famous Chinese songs. The men at the party didn’t need much encouragement and they lined up to sing with her. She also sang “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (but made especially famous by Whitney Houston, of course) and I was once again rocketed back to my high school awkwardness.

Right on that cue, she grabbed my elbow and said “lai, lai” (“come, come”) and pulled me up on the stage. The whole place turned to see what this foreign girl would do. Zou Rui had chosen one of the few English songs in the repertoire of titles available and suddenly the opening chords of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles began. She sang the first verse and in the pause, she introduced me to the audience in Chinese as “a very famous singer from Canada” and motioned that I ought to start singing the second verse.

ACK! My throat tightened and I was sure that I was going to vomit right there.

I had the microphone in front of my face but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I opened my mouth. Not only was I supposed to sing “Hey Jude” (a song that I don’t know very well – thank goodness for words on the screen!) but now I was supposed to demonstrate my “very famous” singing voice!

I opened my mouth tentatively and, thankfully, the notes came. My body bailed me out. By the first chorus, I was actually smiling and singing at full volume along with Zou Rui. By the second chorus, we were harmonizing. By the end of the song, they were on their feet and cheering.

So karaoke isn’t so bad. I can handle it.

Next time, however, I think I’ll have a drink first!