It’s 11 p.m. on a Friday night and the place is packed. I’m at the Sansei in Kihei, which has a line outside of people waiting to get a seat at a table. I walk past them and head straight to the bar, which is by the stage, just in time to see Elvis. Or, at least, hear somebody just like him.
Michael is wearing an orange aloha shirt and is gripping the microphone as he looks at the monitor, reading the words to “Teddy Bear” as they’re lit up. In the large, dimly lit room, a disco ball casts lights along the floor and tables in front of the elevated stage.
On occasion the host, Tyrone, who is also on stage, holds up a large sign that says, “SCREAM,” at which point the mostly drinking audience complies.
“Okay, everybody give it up for Michael!” Tyrone says when the song is over. He cues the next song, which happens to be another Elvis tune, “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” that he will sing himself and encourage everyone to sing along.
Karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-OH-kay) has been a popular form of entertainment in Japan since the early 1970’s. Translated, it means “empty orchestra,” representing the recorded music that backs live singers. Lyrics are generally provided by way of a nearby video monitor, which also sometimes features an accompanying B-grade music video.
The phenomenon has since spread to other parts of the world. But perhaps because of our proximity to Japan and the importance in which Hawai`i has historically placed on music, karaoke is extremely popular—and often taken quite seriously—here on Maui.
Though easily one of the youngest performers on Sansei’s Kihei stage, 21-year-old Brittany is an obvious karaoke pro. Her near pitch-perfect rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance” is American Idol-worthy; her ability to maintain eye contact, dance, and smile confidently through the song’s challenging chorus does not go unnoticed by the crowd, as they cheer her loudly at song’s end.
Brittany says she’s been singing karaoke since she was five, and that her faves are songs from the 1950’s. But she tries not to sing any song more than once.
“I just do it for fun,” she says later. “And well, my dad is the host.”
Another song is cued—Luther Vandross’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”—as local entertainer and recording artist Merv Oana casually gets up from his seat at the bar, amiably stopping to say “happy holidays” to friends along the way before he steps onto the stage and takes the mic. His skilled delivery of the R&B tune is as cool and smooth as his walk up.
When Oana’s song ends, a grinning, curly-haired dude takes the stage and introduces himself to the crowd.
“I’m Rick James, bitch!”
He proceeds to dazzle the crowd with his stylistically perfect and energetically infectious “Super Freak.”
I later discover his name is Tyson, and he’s a construction worker and videographer. He sang his first song in Singapore in 1991.
“It’s fun—I’ve never done it seriously,” he says. “Except for once when my mom was in the audience and I sang, ‘You Are So Beautiful.’”
But when his mom isn’t around, Tyson says his favorite song to sing is “Do Me!” by Bell Biv Devoe (“except nobody has that”) and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”—his all-time standard.
“I pick ‘em to amp the crowd and have fun,” he says. “And that’s it.”
James Okumura has been a karaoke host, though not at Sansei Kihei, since 1989. He’d been hosting for a while in Kahului but always wanted to be on Front Street, where he’d heard legends like Elton John and Fleetwood Mac have made impromptu performances.
Though he started his own karaoke company in 1992, Okumura says he’s not in it for the money but for people’s enjoyment.
“It’s a way for people to relieve stress,” he says. “To handle living on Maui.”
Okumura is now hosting Paradice Bluz’s burgeoning karaoke night on Tuesdays. He says the songs people sing vary from town to town, but the Lahaina crowd tends to like newer stuff.
“Sometimes we can’t please everybody—we can only play so many songs in one night,” he says, as he fiddles with knobs on the soundboard. “But as long as they’re having fun, I’m doing my job. The trick to being a good host is making the person sound good.”
Back at Sansei Kihei, an older Hawaiian man in a blue aloha shirt takes the stage. Bruddah D. is diminutive in stature, with a white beard, and is leaning a little on one crutch. But when his deep, scratchy voice richly soars out Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” and he dances a little to the beat, everyone goes wild.
Afterwards, as his friend Ozzi sings “My Girl” just as flawlessly, Bruddah D. stands alongside him and sings backup “hey hey hey’s.”
Bruddah D. and Ozzi do perform at various private gigs, mostly around South Maui. They enjoy karaoke not only so they can sing, but also to experience other singers. They tell me a lot of people stick to one style but they try to be versatile.
“Of course we like the oldies, the crooners, Hawaiian songs,” says Ozzi. “Music had soul back then. Not too much hip-hop and rap—it can be monotonous sometimes.”
“There’s a truth to feeling the music and expressing it, no matter what level you’re at,” D. said. “If you sing it with your all, it takes you to a higher place. I like to listen to other people and give them praise, even if they make a fool of themselves—hey, I didn’t see you go up and try it! I like to look for exceptional [singers], just to rub elbows… it raises your game level.”
In a performance that garners one of the biggest reactions of the night, Pono sings R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” with a natural talent and charisma that perhaps usurps the original artist’s. Almost immediately after Pono’s rich, strong voice belts out through the speakers, whoops erupt from the crowd, who also begin holding up their cell phones and table candles, with restaurant workers reverently flap their arms.
But off to the side of the bar, another man waits, somewhat nervously.
“I’m probably gonna have to follow him,” he says. “Watch.”
As Pono’s song ends, and the beginning notes of Prince’s “Kiss” kick in, the once-nervous man jumps exuberantly onto the stage. Smiling, he grabs the mic and lets loose. He really seems to be enjoying himself. When he’s done, he joins me at the bar.
“I’m a walking jukebox,” says Justin, a 27-year-old server in Kihei. “I can sing almost any song, like, even country songs, and I don’t even listen to country. But as I get older, my memory is fading. It’s all that malted hops and bong resin.”
His favorites to sing are Pearl Jam’s “Black” and “Radiohead’s “Creep,” which Justin said is “super hard to do ‘cause you have to get really high.”
He says he’s been doing karaoke for the past six to seven years, as a way to entertain the audience and get the crowd revved up. But he gets angry when songbooks don’t list songs alphabetically by artist. Most karaoke books just list the songs by title, which doesn’t help when you can’t remember the name of that one Usher hit that you could definitely rock, if you could just find it.
Sal, a 70-ish part-time Maui resident, likes the classics—Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Engelbert Humperdinck—but, he says, “I do ‘em all my way.” And he’s been doing it regularly in Las Vegas, Massachusetts, Florida, California and Hawai`i for the past three years.
“There are so many really good singers,” Sal says. “Some are better than the recording artists.”
Sal fondly remembers the first time he went up on stage with a pre-recorded track in front of a group of strangers. He says it was around the time karaoke started (“Was it 15 years ago?”), and he did Tony Bennett’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
“I just like to sing, to get the audience reaction,” he says. “But sometimes I forget the words.”
When the host cues Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” Sal is beckoned. On his way to the stage, he stops and turns to me.
“If they had karaoke when I was younger, I might’ve gone pro,” Sal said. “But when I die, I want Count Basie behind me so I can sing.” MTW