A Cultural Staple: Filipino Karaoke

Location: Bontoc, Mountain Province, The Philippines 

It’s dark and dank down here in this converted basement-bar. I’m sitting at one of the two wobbly, plastic tables, a heavy binder stuffed with hundreds of grease-stained, fingerprint-smudged, laminated papers. As I flip through the pages, I’m astonished by the collection of songs and artists before me; this is the most extensive karaoke list I’ve ever encountered. They have everything, from Manny Pacquiao’s latest hits to ABBA to System of a Down to Rod Stewart to The Offspring to The Notorious B.I.G. It’s so impressive that it makes up for the fact that the ceiling is so low I can’t stand, the plastic shot glass I’m sipping from is dirty, and all the liquor is lukewarm.


I can’t believe I doubted the decision-making of the group of young, excitable, red-faced Filipinos I’m hanging out with when we first walked down the shaky wooden steps of the building and into this underground den.  

I continue flipping through the pages as Fame, a cheery girl from Baguio, reminds me that “anyone can sing.” She’s told me this several times tonight and refuses to accept it when I explain I shouldn’t be given a microphone because I’m tone deaf. Finally, I find a 1990’s hit I know by heart; it’s cheesy and I already know I’m going to look like an idiot, but the cheap gin in my stomach is telling me that it’s okay, not to worry about what they think. I can’t leave the Philippines without belting out at least one love ballad at a karaoke bar. It would be like I missed out on a key cultural experience.

But before I make the big move to the karaoke machine, I pour another round of shots. I need the liquid encouragement and I wonder if I’ll sound better to everyone else if they’re just a little drunker.

Everyone lifts their drinks in the air, and we all shout our cheer together, bumping our cups and spilling liquor onto the red-and-white checkered picnic cloth on the table.

“Para sikat!” This is my favorite cheer from Southeast Asia. I learned it tonight. It translates in English as “to being famous!” I gulp and the gin burns my throat, but it’s exactly the distraction I need.

I’m standing now and everyone is cheering; finally, I’m about to sing. I’ve been holding back all night, humming along and clapping when others finish. I push a $0.25 coin into the black-and-gold machine and punch in my song’s code. Fame hands me the microphone. And there I am, standing in the middle of the room, facing all these strangers, and the music begins to play, the words lighting up across the tv screen. Before I know it, I’m shimmying and pointing at people. And then I’m crooning at the top of my lungs, eyes closed in true sappy-love-song-style.

“I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as loooong as you love me!”