It’s early afternoon in Hilo and the Kamana Senior Center is a hub of activity. Seniors pass through the center’s pavilion, moving to and from activities in classrooms, calling and waving to each other as they pass or stopping to chat. Emma Souza, president of the Kamana Karaoke Club, approaches a microphone. Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” rings throughout the space on a giant speaker. “And feeing good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,” Souza belts from her favorite country tune.
The echo of the music drowns out the sound of the soft drizzle on the lawn outside. But how could anyone really notice the rain when someone is singing so passionately? As Souza finishes, her peers—a group of older women sitting across the pavilion—look up from their conversations, smile, and clap.
The karaoke program at the senior center is part of Hawai‘i County’s Elderly Recreation Services Activities Division, which provides free classes of all kinds—from yoga to gardening to quilting—for anyone ages 55 and up, resident or not. Karaoke class meets three times each week, and many of its members also participate in the karaoke club. The club officially meets quarterly, but also facilitates other outings throughout the year, including visits to elders in other care facilities who can no longer travel.
These visits are due, in part, to club member and karaoke class teacher Kay Fukuda, whose husband lived in an extensive care facility until recently. After he passed, she and a group of fellow singers continued to visit residents and perform songs for those who could no longer sing karaoke themselves. Many of the traditional Japanese songs they sang triggered memories of childhood for the residents there.
The Kamana Karaoke Club has been a way for many seniors to connect through song for more than 30 years. Many of them began singing tunes in their native languages at parties and family gatherings when they were children. When they were young, “karaoke” hadn’t been coined as any particular concept. Singing was just what people did to socialize. For this group of seniors, Kamana Karaoke Club is not just a musical outlet, but a way for the seniors to reconnect with childhood memories.
Kamana Karaoke Club holds a yearly Karaoke Review every April, inviting senior karaoke clubs from other islands to perform. The review—Souza calls it a showcase of the islands’ best talent—has become widely known around town. The last review was held at Aunty Sally’s Luau House in Hilo. “It was decked out with so many flowers that it didn’t even look like Aunty Sally’s anymore!” Souza recalls. The public, even Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi, came dressed to the nines. In fact, so many clubs have become interested in the review, which is in its 29th year, that singers now have to audition first in order to be selected to perform.
Back at Kamana Senior Center, it’s Fukuda’s turn to sing. She’s older, with a small frame, kind face, and sweet smile. She speaks softly, but is opinionated once you get her talking, and her singing voice comes as a pleasant surprise. She starts in on a traditional Japanese song, with lilting background music and a harmonious melody. She stands still, focused on the words. When she’s done, she brushes off praise and says she has a cold.
Souza describes Fukuda as the more traditional of the two. While growing up in Hilo, Fukuda and others sang exclusively in Japanese, and used to stand and bow before every song.
A quick Google search generates millions of hits related to karaoke—evidence that this once traditional pastime has permeated pop culture. The first karaoke machine was created by a musician named Daisuke Inoue in 1971. Inoue lived in Kobe, Japan and played drums in a band that would accompany bar patrons when they wanted to sing. He later told a reporter for The Guardian that he was a terrible musician, so he created a machine to play for him when he didn’t want to. He had 11 made, and leased them to local businesses. By the 1980s, karaoke (a Japanese abbreviated compound word made from “kara,” meaning empty, and “oke,” or orchestra) was booming in Japan. Though karaoke traces its roots to Japan, it is in Hawai‘i—a place filled with diverse cultures and classes—that karaoke is, perhaps, most beloved. Locals like to think of Hawai‘i as the karaoke capital of the world. Maybe it’s because of the strong influence of Japanese culture. For Souza and Fukuda, though they may communicate differently—Souza is full of words and explanations but always passes the buck to her friend to tell the real story, while Fukuda is sweet in nature but blunt with her words—song forms the language of their history. The two friends have no shame. For them, karaoke isn’t a practice, it’s a way of living, and it seems to keep them present in the moment, open to whatever comes next.
Souza didn’t begin going to formal karaoke bars until her adult life. Now, she gathers with a group of friends to sing every week. Today, as she sings at the pavilion, she reads the lyrics off her iPhone. It’s a modern accessory juxtaposed with a traditional art. But things at the senior center aren’t that modern yet. There’s no giant television with words flashing across the screen, like those found in contemporary karaoke clubs. Just like old times, most people read the lyrics off sheets of paper from a giant songbook. When they perform, they memorize the songs.
“[Karaoke is] a form of relaxation, helps with your memory, your overall health, disposition, and emotional wellbeing,” says Souza, who sings to help keep her lungs healthy and her asthma at bay. For Fukuda, karaoke has strengthened the muscles in her face, which were affected by Bell’s Palsy. “After each song,” Souza says, “I feel rejuvenated and ready to charge.”
To hear Souza’s and Fukuda’s stories is to hear insight into a culture not defined by time. Like them, my own memories resurface when I hear and sing familiar songs. My interest in karaoke runs deep. My parents rented a karaoke machine for my 12th birthday, and I got my own machine at 16. I’ve been going to karaoke bars since I was old enough to, belting the likes of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey and eating fried food at late-night establishments. So I could only thank my lucky stars when a year ago, I heard of the opening of a late-night karaoke bar across town. Since then, Kanpai Noodles, Sushi, and Sake has transformed Hilo’s nighttime scene, finally offering a place to eat and gather after 10 p.m., when the sleepy streets have usually cleared.
At Kanpai, the walls are tiled in dark grey and accented by banzai trees placed around the room. Chunky black wooden tables sit in the center of the room, and a curving, polished wood bar top reflects an edgy design aesthetic. At the far end of the room, separated by a beaded curtain, is the karaoke room. It’s long and skinny, with a flat-screen television filling nearly an entire wall. Underneath it is the book—the bible of every karaoke bar, that tome of pages providing the full list of songs that can be sung.
Sushi chef Mike Ito and owner Issa Hilweh are seated at a shiny black table, but only briefly. It’s an interlude before they get back to business; they’re the kind of people who work every day because they love what they do. Hilweh’s concept for the restaurant was to bring a positive, after-hours dining experience to Hilo. Kanpai serves food (fresh, never fried or frozen) until 1 a.m., something unheard of in Hilo before now.
“My initial reasoning was because you go around to these karaoke bars and it’s the same exact concept in every one. It’s not somewhere you want to bring a family or go to dinner. We wanted to do something a little bit more modern,” Hilweh says.
Ito, who is Japanese himself, agrees. They aren’t saying there’s anything wrong with tradition, but that the concept of Kanpai is meant to elevate the traditional notion of a gathering place with a karaoke room that breaks social boundaries. “Once anyone starts singing,” Ito muses, “you feel comfortable.”
I thumb through that familiar, hefty book of songs and enter classic karaoke favorites: “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Just like Souza, when I finish singing, I feel rejuvenated. It’s not the food, or the room, or even the karaoke, but the memory of something good that I’ll keep with me long after the last note fades.