São Paulo, with its large Japanese population, has more claim than most cities to being in on the worldwide karaoke craze right from the start. Imported to Brazil in the late-1970s, karaoke is now so ingrained in the city’s culture that the 21-year-old União Paulista de Karaokê claims to have more than 10,000 registered singers, some of whom compete in a televised yearly sing-off.
And though SP’s karaoke ground zero is, predictably, the Japanese neighbourhood of Liberdade, variations on the theme can be found all over the city, from the sticky seats of backroom dives to sexy, stylish spots like Bar Secreto, and more recently, the one year-old, two-storey, flat-screen-filled Coconut Brasil, which claims that its 2,000-person-capacity mega-house in Santa Cecília has the largest ‘videokê’ in all of Latin America.
|Coconut Brasil claims the largest ‘videokê’ in all of Latin America
So where to begin? Possibly the most fertile spot is still in Liberdade, on Rua da Glória. Kick off a night of caterwauling at Samurai, a lesser-known, cavernous room situated above a homely restaurant. A glitzed-out hostess in her fifties takes your name and seats you, then sings along with the participants while smacking a tambourine at the front of the huge stage.
Spacious enough to accommodate an entire roller derby team (we speak from experience), the high stage overlooks a lowlit room flanked by a low-tabled, shoes-off dining section, and as such, singers are often barefoot. As for the eats, the tray of tempura is substantial, fancifully arranged in a fan shape, and tastier than you would expect in a place where people stop eating to mount the stage for a bit of impromptu backup singing. The wait for singing is reasonably brief, and the waiting staff is attentive.
|Singers at Samurai
At the other end of the decor scale from muted Samurai is Choperia Liberdade, perhaps the city’s best known karaoke haven. The signature look here is wildly colourful, crammed with dozens of dangling coloured plastic balls, plus Christmas lights, striped lanterns and red walls. The decent bar food includes a good value sushi menu – try the sushi and sashimi set (R$67).
Bottles of Brahma and Bohemia are a popular choice, although as the night wears on, branching out into something more exotic may seem like a good idea. Beware: grouped with four relatively sensible cocktail options – mojito, sex on the beach, margarita and blue lagoon – lurks the ‘espanhola’, an inspired creation made from red wine, pineapple and condensed milk. You don’t need to try it. Pacing yourself, in any case, is wise: it can take hours before the mic is handed to you here, and after a half-dozen chopes, it may prove difficult to gather the energy to do ‘The Final Countdown’ justice.
Just a bit further down on the street, Tequila’s Karaokê is like walking into a disco ball: it’s all mirrors and bright, blue neon. At the back of the long room, a raised platform assures singers of being the centre of attention – provided none of the clientele has decided to perform a makeshift pole dance directly in front of the stage. Poker-faced, elderly Japanese men and their escorts comprise a majority of the regulars, so newcomers may find themselves getting the slight cold shoulder from the staff. Make it early enough in the evening or the week and you shouldn’t wait more than 30 to 45 minutes to hear your name called, with a respectful ‘-san’ tagged onto the end of it. But as the night or the week wears on, wait times increase, and even getting a drink can be a challenge.
If you’re hungry, the sushi is dubious, the tempura’s just a nudge above airport quality, and the cheese plate appears to be only just about edible. But on the positive side, Tequila’s has so many stacks of songbooks strewn on its couches, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a song they don’t have. A flip through reveals everything from freshly minted Lady Gaga songs to pan-Asian tearjerkers, Brazilian rock classics, obscure ’80s punk, and romantic Italian ballads from the ’60s.
|Tequila’s Karaokê has a clutch of regular customers
Across town in Pinheiros, the fashionista haven Bar Secreto hosts ‘Isto Não É Um Karaokê’ (‘this is not a karaoke’) every Wednesday, where Bono himself gave a DIY rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’ at the after party for U2's São Paulo shows, back in April 2011. Being backed by a five-piece rock band makes an energetic change of pace to the usual video backing, but reading from the bar’s weathered book of lyrics can prove difficult. Our tip: sing songs you know by heart, and go with a packed wallet, as a round of drinks can turn out to be a heavy investment at this chic spot.
Further south, an equally upmarket option for four minutes of rock star fame is the Karate Kid theme bar Seu Miagui (CLOSED). The prospect of stealing the show, to the backing by a live band, draws a competitive, good-looking single crowd on Sunday nights.
Finally, if you’d rather hide your karaoke light under a bushel, or you just can’t bring yourself to do Cher’s ‘Believe’ with strangers watching, then one of the private rooms at Karaokê Box Porque Sim might be your thing. The song selection is ho-hum, the rooms look like a faded college dorm room from 1989 with easy-wipe furniture, and if you need the toilet, it’s a long way through sketchy rooms and down a treacherous staircase. But once inside, with the door closed, both the microphones and the night are all yours.
Bar Secreto is at Rua Alvaro Anes 97, Pinheiros. Read more on Bar Secreto
Coconut Brasil is at Rua Dona Veridiana 152, Santa Cecília, 3224 0586, biroska.com.br/espetinho
Choperia Liberdade is at Rua da Glória 523, Liberdade, 3207 8783. Read more on Choperia Liberdade
Karaokê Box Porque Sim is at Rua Tomaz Gonzaga 75, Liberdade, 3277 1557, karaokeboxporquesim.com.br
Samurai is at Rua da Glória 608, Liberdade, 3208 6969, restaurantesamurai.com.br
Seu Miagui is at Rua Clodomiro Amazonas 556, Itaim Bibi, 3078 4170. SEU MIAGUI CLOSED IN JUNE 2012
Tequila’s Karaokê is at Rua da Glória 543, Liberdade, 3207 0377, tequilas.com.br