Sunday, December 9, 2007

Karaoke Kichigai (Crazy for Karaoke)

Karaoke (singing popular songs to pre-recorded backing tracks) was invented in Japan. It means “empty orchestra” and is pronounced as kah-rah-okay, not karey-okie, as has been adopted in the United States.

I first discovered karaoke in Japantown (Nihonmachi) in San Francisco in the late 1970s. I was a frustrated vocalist who had performed for peanuts (and less) in a number of bands. And I was also a rabid Japanophile who couldn’t get enough of studying Nihongo (the Japanese language). So I jumped at the chance to be able to learn Japanese pop songs (J-pop) and perform them without the need for backup musicians who were often either too messed up to play or plain just didn’t even show up for a gig. Singing in Japanese was easier than speaking it, and it was fun to pretend to be fluent for the duration of a song. I honed my skills at karaoke bars in Japantown and even briefly worked at one as a singing bar hostess. Soon I was performing in Japanese karaoke recitals and contests, usually the lone female Caucasian in the group, and racked up a few trophies and prizes.

At that time I was singing songs by the pop idols of the day—Akina Nakamori and Seiko Matsuda. I also tried my hand at learning enka, a more traditional type of singing and did songs by Masako Mori and Sayuri Ishikawa. When I moved to Tokyo I appeared on a wacky television show that was a karaoke contest for foreigners (gaijin) (see picture). I even had my own backup dancers, way before Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls.

I continued singing in Japanese and when I returned to California I eventually even got my own home laser-disc karaoke set. But laser discs fell out of favor and died along with eight-tracks, Betamax, and the Apple Newton. Now there were “karaoke boxes,” establishments that supplied small rooms rented by the hour where you could sing your heart out, choosing from thousands of songs; there was no need to buy your own.

In 2002 I auditioned for NHK TV’s “Nodo Jiman” (“Brag Your Throat”) program when it came to San Francisco. I was one of the twelve finalists and performed Teresa Teng’s “Kuu-koo” (“Airport”), broadcast live by satellite all over the world from Bill Graham Auditorium.

Now, promoting my debut novel, MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT, I am still singing in Japanese. My heroine in the book, Midori Saito, ends up working at a karaoke lounge in Japantown and we want to give readers the opportunity to hear some Japanese music. So at some of my book events my husband, Manabu “Stokemaster” Tokunaga backs me up on electronic keyboard and I perform “Shura no Hana,” a Japanese song made popular in the Quentin Tarantino film, “Kill Bill,” and sung by Mieko Kaji, as well as other Japanese favorites.



Mary Witzl said...

Hi, Wendy!

One of these days I mean to write a blog entry about those karaoke days -- what a kick that was! Do you remember the carnation growers, for instance, and the van load of flowers wrapped in newspaper? Or that rowdy group of men who were heavily into martial arts and had imbibed a little too heavily, too? Somewhere I still have the diary I wrote back then, and I always tell myself I'll go and look at it...

Wendy Tokunaga said...

I'm glad to hear you have a diary of that time! I sure don't and my memory is hazy, though I do seem to remember having my picture taken for the gentlemen who were visiting from the Shizuoka Mushroom Grower's Association. :-)

Plan to blog sometime on the Kohaku, which I recorded. Amin ("Matsu Wa") was on! I wonder if there's a video on YouTube?