From Alabama to Colombia: Killer Karaoke

Travel Features Alabama

Why do people karaoke? What barking madness possesses us?

I sit at a wooden table in Star’s Box Karaoke in Bogota, wondering and marveling. Three Colombian compadres mouth a microphone on a bright flashy stage. They howl together like any trio of Sigma Nu frat boys after five 20-ounce cups of pure grain alcohol punch (spiked with vodka, for flavor). Karaoke and its lubricants have fueled their courage, filled their bladders.

The three amigos don’t sing Margaritaville. They don’t sing Sweet Home Alabama.

They sing Matador, a song of the Argentinian rock band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. The three amigos bawl out the lyrics in paint-peeling Spanish. They may be musical geniuses. On the spot, they invent three separate previously unknown musical scales.

Adela, my fiancée, and our friend (I’m not making this up) Margarita look at one another. We can sing better than that. If those cacophonous compadres can willingly make such fools of themselves … well, who are we to hold back?

Voila. Karaoke Lesson #1: No matter what kind of ear-ulcering, trauma-causing, cat de-furring, car crash of a voice you have … you sound better than somebody.

We have come to the Star’s Box to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Margarita’s divorce. Naturally, such an occasion calls for karaoke.

What’s the perfect karaoke song for a one-year divorce party?

Free Bird. I search the Star’s Box play list.

Instead, I find page after bewildering page of song titles in Spanish. I squeeze my brain trying to think of one I know. No use. I grew up in Alabama. We heard exactly two tunes in Spanish: La Cucaracha and The Mexican Hat Dance. As far as we knew, no other songs with Spanish words ever existed.

This night at Star’s Box, do I dare sing a song in Spanish?

No señor. I don’t know Spanish that well. Not yet. The words to the Spanish-language tunes on the karaoke monitor look like hieroglyphics. They might be Egyptian recipes. Hippopotamus hash. Baboon flambé.

I concentrate on the song list as a preppie-looking bogotano sings a love song to his girlfriend. Not bad—that boy might get lucky tonight.

As Don Juan finishes, I discover one little box of English-language titles on the Star’s Box menu. A little ghetto of songs I can actually sing.

My high hopes crash. I don’t know a single one of these songs in English, either. I never listened to Guns N’ Roses. The AC/DC songs that blew out speakers in the 1980s damaged my liver. The song list offers several selections by George Michael. You hear him a lot on Colombian radio. But who can sing like that?

Adela gives a card with her song selection on it to the Wizard of Oz guy running the karaoke machine. He announces her song (La Noche, by the Colombian singer Juanes), and she leaps onto the stage. Adela holds the mic just like Tina Turner and lets her pretty legs show and belts out her number.

The bravura performance draws two Colombian guys onto the stage as back-up singers, moths to her flame. The whole Star’s Box crowd sings along and waves hands in the air. At Adela’s last note, a cheer raises the roof.

A trio of chicas hits the stage next. Cute girls, and they can sing.

The karaoke crowd sheds inhibitions like layers of clothes. Jackets of self-restraint fly off. Shirts of modesty pop buttons. Stiletto-heeled shoes of reluctance kick in the air. Bartenders swoop in and out of a dancing mob, delivering Corona in bottles, carrying away dead soldiers on little round wet trays.

Adela, my love, returns to our table and throws her happy arms around me. She left the stage a diva. This night of her life, she stood in a spotlight and moved people … and made people move.

Karaoke Lesson #2: A star is always being born.

Since I stepped off the plane at El Dorado International Airport at the end of January this year, I have been separate, distinct. Apart. A gringo in a strange land.

It suits the writer inside me. But the gregarious me, the never-met-a-stranger me, the one-man social network me … that part of Charles gets lonely sometimes.

This night at Star’s Box, I badly want to join the world, not watch it. I scribble the names of two gringo songs—and the names of the recording artists—on my selection card. Neither song can be found anywhere on the karaoke menu. I hope that some miracle of technology will send them in a swarm of electrons to the house sound system.

My songs? I pencil …

Wilson Pickett: In the Midnight Hour
Ben E. King: Stand By Me

Not a snowball’s chance in the tropical midday Bogota sun, I think to myself.

Two guys get up and sing a vallenato, a Colombian standard accompanied by accordion and guitar. Vallenato singers deliver emotional vocals that remind me somehow of the high lonesome sounds of bluegrass singers. Valledupar, where the form originated, can be considered Colombia’s Nashville, a place where you find roots music most deeply grounded. (It happens that Adela comes from Valledupar. I have my own little living vallenata.)

A voice on the house sound system asks the next karaoke singer to the mic.

Weel-son Pickett, comes the call. Weel-son Pickett.

I must look confused.

“That’s you!” Adela says, dragging me up from my chair. “The karaoke guy thinks you’re Wilson Pickett!”

I bound to the stage, take the mic …

… and I now interrupt this column to make a solemn confession.

Until this moment, I have never sung karaoke. Not one single time in my whole life.

The music starts … but I freeze. I expect Midnight Hour. Hey, I’m Wilson Pickett.

Instead, Stand By Me booms through the speakers … with these words on the monitor screen:

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon
Is the only light we’ll see …

It’s a hit!

The bogotanos sing every word—by heart! Who knew? Everybody in the bar joins in. Karaoke Colombia throws back 50 heads, and we cry out a chorus, full-throated:

Darlin’ stand by me
Stand by me …

I shake myself back to reality in time to join the second verse, sing the chorus. The glorious chorus.

Thank you, Ben E. King. Did you ever dream your song would be howled like a borderless national anthem by 50 people in a karaoke joint on rocking Carrera 19 in Bogota, Colombia, in the year 2015?

Karaoke Lesson #3: We are all brothers and sisters under the karaoke sky.

Colombia gave the world Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia gave the world magical realism.

I don’t even know what to call this next weird magic.

On my karaoke morning-after, I wake with a headache. Maybe two headaches, mine and somebody else’s. I take all my Tylenol.

Restless, I check the morning news on the smartphone.

Is the screen making up stories?

Black headlines inform me that Ben E. King passed away.

Maybe it happened as I sang his song at Star’s Box. Maybe he left us at the very hour, the midnight hour, the bar jubilated with karaoke singers lifting voices, standing by one another the way singers do.

It felt impossibly, magically, strange. A Macondo moment.

And that brings us to Karaoke Lesson #4: La vida es corta. Just sing. No matter what.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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