In 2007, the rock band Journey got a new lease on life when they discovered Arnel Pineda, a talented Filipino singer with pipes made for power ballads.
Pineda’s countrymen were thrilled that Journey chose a cover band performer from the Philippines as their new lead singer. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising, considering the art of vocal mimicry is a national pastime in the Southeast Asian country.
It is an understatement to say that Filipinos love karaoke. Almost every Philippine home has a karaoke machine or a Magic Sing microphone – a digital mic that turns your television into a karaoke machine. It’s almost always a feature at birthday and holiday parties. And scores of bars and restaurants offer karaoke or videoke (a more competitive version that scores singers and records their performances).
When it comes to karaoke bars in the Philippines, there’s a wide spectrum. There are wholesome “family KTV’s” (KTV standing for Karaoke Television) which cater to all ages, serve food and have private rooms where you can sing with your friends. Then there are regular karaoke bars – laid back places to have a few drinks before embarrassing yourself publicly — that have karaoke machines or a live band to back up your vocals. “Nightclubs” are basically strip clubs with karaoke, exotic dancing and back rooms that often feature more than just singing. At these clubs -- which range in levels of taste -- men often pay the women who work there to sit with them in the main room.
Karaoke’s popularity also extends past city centres. When Seoul-based writer (and friend of Travelwise) Hannah Bae travelled to a remote part of Sorsogon province to visit a friend’s family, she found the villages have a profound love for karaoke too. “[E]ven though the area was plagued by frequent brownouts, the family living in the [bamboo] hut had a karaoke machine, because it’s just that beloved in the Philippines,” Bae said. “My friend’s little nephews were obsessed with the Michael Jackson songs, which had videos of him dancing in the background of the karaoke selections.”
The world’s first karaoke machine, the Juke-8, was built by Japanese inventor and musician Daisuke Inoue in 1971. But it is Filipino inventor Roberto del Rosario who holds the machine’s patent. He developed the Karaoke Sing-Along System in 1975.
Since then, singing has become a central part of pop culture in the Philippines. Singing is the focus of several modern reality shows and game shows, and even Filipino celebrities like boxer Manny Pacquiao enjoy singing publicly. On the American late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live, for instance, Pacquiao created a viral hit when he performed a duet of John Lennon’s Imagine with actor Will Ferrell.
Sadly, this playful pastime also has some dark history. In the past decade, at least half a dozen people have been murdered after singing Frank Sinatra’s My Way in Philippine karaoke bars. The My Way Killings were reported on heavily last year in the international press and have caused many bars to ban the song altogether. Did emotions run high because someone sang out of tune? Or are bar fights inevitable and My Way just happens to be a very common karaoke song? Whatever the assailants’ motives, the incidents remind us to take extra precaution when imbibing in an unfamiliar place.
For the most part, though, karaoke is a family-friendly activity throughout the Philippines. Perhaps the best way to enjoy this tradition is in a Philippine home, but if you don’t know any locals yet, here are a few places to sing the night away in Manila, the nation’s capital.
Rock out to Andy Samberg’s Saturday Night Live hit, I’m on a Boat, as you sail to any of Superferry’s 18 destinations in the Philippines. In addition to videoke, the ferry’s amenities include meals, drinks, wi-fi, Wii games and book rentals.
If you’re travelling with kids, karaoke restaurants located in malls tend to be family-friendly joints. Red Box, in Manila’s Eastwood Mall, has individual rooms and is open all day. The lunch-time special includes a buffet meal and a room for 199 Philippine pesos.
World Music Room Family KTV
Also catering to all ages, World Music Room, in Manila’s Promenade Mall, hosts a variety of events, from family reunions to corporate parties.
Music 21 Plaza
Music 21 is another popular “family KTV”in the capital of the Philippines. The Pasay City branch has the current distinction of having more check-ins on Foursquare than any other karaoke bar in Manila.
The Music Bar at the Hyatt Hotel
Yes, even some hotels house karaoke bars in Manila. This upscale karaoke bar is just one of the Hyatt’s draws. Its Casino Manila is the biggest hotel gaming site in the Philippines.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.