San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Karaoke Bars: The Glory and the Shame

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
–Napoleon Bonaparte

There is a dark current in Costa Rica – dormant, suppressed by day, flamboyant by night: it is the karaoke bar. Here, reputations are forged and broken on the glory or the shame of singing, in public, with a microphone, while drunk.

Fame is traded over a currency of air guitars, pelvic thrusts and cha-cha-chas, while an organ plucks the melodies of the greatest rock hits of the ’80s to a visual backdrop of soothing waterfalls, sailboats, horses and Korean temples in the mist. Between verses, listeners and singers alike who look at the screen are advised to“Have a Good Time,” which is sometimes an understatement, sometimes a mockery, in a place where reverb and tequila have fooled great men into overestimating their talent, and where they have turned mouse-voiced office types into chair-dancing floor shows.

“Nobody sings well in karaoke,” homicide detective and karaoke aficionado Víctor Fernández said. “You don’t have to know how to sing in a karaoke bar. When you have a microphone and begin to sing, it’s because you like it. You don’t have to do it well.”

Cultures clash over the karaoke machine. North Americans want camp and goofiness; Costa Ricans want style. Both have their strong and poor singers, but it’s more often the foreigners who will thrust out an open hand while bellowing the final notes of “Unchained Melody,” or sink to their knees to grind out a Guns N’ Roses guitar solo. And it’s the Costa Ricans who will earnestly sing a ballad of love lost, such as “Sin Él” (“Without Him”), and the creases on their brows will be of real – not mock – concern, and there will be no trace of irony on their lips when they sing that they cannot go on living without him.

Also, more North Americans will blush, sweat and clam up when the song they thought they knew wanders into unknown territory with an unforeseen bridge or key change, while Costa Ricans will just keep chugging along, leaving the melody behind without even a shrug.

To minimize embarrassment, one sweet-voiced karaoke diva, high school teacher Heidi Romanish, had this advice: “A hard, fast rule of karaoke is you don’t pick a song to which you only know the chorus. You’ll be hung out to dry … hung out to dry.”

Costa Rican karaoke bars are a mixed bag of seedy to over-the-top, where often the beauty of the amateur voices is inversely proportionate to the smashed roaches and mildew spores. The range of songs varies as well, but many places have an extensive list of songs in English and Spanish, and some have even delved into French, German and Mandarin.

There are glorious, chrome and neon karaoke bars where everyone hits the high notes and which talent scouts should frequent, if they don’t. And there are musty, bare-bones, beer-swill-and-song sweatshops where the bartenders know your name, the urinal is a hole chinked out of the floor, and the machine is all yours on slow nights, and crammed with often off-key yodeling on busy nights. It depends on whether you want to eat bocas off a plastic plate or a ceramic one, and how much dissonance you can stand.

“In Costa Rica, everybody wants to sing,” cleaning product buyer Roger Coto warned. “If it’s poorly sung, at least you had the balls to do it. There are lots of people with lots of fear, but when they come with a group, they get rid of the fear. Especially when they drink a few beers.”

Of the glorious bars, perhaps the top floor of Castro’s is king. A three-floor mini-palace in San José’s Barrio México, Castro’s is a regular haunt for suspiciously professional-sounding singers crooning Spanish love ballads and English mainstays. It has a stage, a full-time karaoke DJ, and an aura of dedication to the pastime that brooks no nonsense.

But that’s for well-heeled one-nighters and dabblers in karaoke. Aspiring stars start their ascent in the hovels of the karaoke circuit, where they wail, croak, hum or crack into microphones that – to cop a phrase from Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man” – smell like a beer.

Kozin bar and restaurant, also known as The Chino’s, in eastern San José, is one such bar. Lawyers, caterers, restaurateurs, the jobless, middle-aged couples, Costa Ricans, foreigners and, admittedly, most of The Tico Times’ news crew, line up their picks on the Korean karaoke machine and knock them down one by one, handing off the microphones between sets. As for the listeners, sometimes there is sweating and gnashing of teeth, sometimes murmurs of approval. Sometimes they dance or sing along, but they always applaud, even if half-heartedly, in the end.

Bar 88, with its stage and cool, young, good-looking clientele, straddles the line between the hovels and the big time. Its location near Calle La Amargura, the college-kid strip in San Pedro, east of downtown San José, attracts a young crowd and more than its fair share of tourists, and smooth-sounding songsmiths belt out tunes of Vegas quality.

The common denominator is that the crowds might frown on antics, but they accept poor singing as par for the course.

“We all have a song,” Fernández said. “Which is your song?”

Venues that offer karaoke most days of the week: Bar 88, San Pedro, east of San José, 225-0601; Castro’s, Barrio México, San José, 256-8789; Grammys, San Francisco de Dos Ríos, southeast of San José, 227-4654; Kozin, Calle 13, Avenidas 8/10, San José, 221-3808; Tierra Colombiana, San Francisco de Dos Ríos, 250-0481; Tunas, Sabana Norte, west of San José, 231-1802.

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