Finding a place where you can sing karaoke in public, in front of a live audience, is surprisingly difficult in much of Asia. On that continent, it’s far more common to come across establishments with private rooms that people rent by the hour with their friends or business associates — and where they sing only to their companions. During my recent visits to China and Taiwan, such “private room” facilities — known as “KTV” clubs — proved ubiquitous in those destinations. In contrast, in both of those countries, I couldn’t find a single venue that provides the opportunity to perform karaoke in public. This proved to be the case even in extremely populous cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
In an upcoming post, I’ll address how I got around that difficulty in mainland China. In Taiwan, however, the solution proved particularly exciting: I sang in a karaoke-equipped taxi! Doing that had special meaning for me because I have a history of karaokeing in taxicabs — and that history even includes a connection to Taiwan. So let me back up a little bit and share the backstory.
Prologue: singing on the road in my nation’s capital
Flash back to November 2011. During that month, I spent an afternoon as a passenger in a taxicab operated by Filipino expat Joel Laguidao in Washington, DC. That taxi was outfitted with karaoke equipment, which I made full use of as Joel drove my friend and me around the city of Washington. The full story of how that ride came about is recounted in this blog post, which also includes links to videos from that ride. Suffice it to say that I didn’t stumble by accident upon Mr. Laguidao’s karaoke cab; I tracked him down after having sought for years to experience the thrill of karaokeing in a moving vehicle. Continue reading →
Several nights before I flew to Mexico City, I was shaken up by a disturbing nightmare. In the dream, there was a cloud on the ground and I stepped onto it; the cloud was then magically transformed into a glacier. Walking on the glacier, I fell into a hidden crevasse and started plummeting for what would certainly be hundreds of feet. Even if I survived the fall, I knew I would end up too far below the surface to ever climb out or be found by rescuers. And I thought to myself, “This is what it feels like to know I’m about to die.” Then I woke up.
One year ago this weekend — Memorial Day weekend in the United States — I flew to Mexico City because I’d never been to Mexico, and that city was geographically close enough (roughly a four hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Benito Juarez International Airport near Mexico City) that it would be easy to jet down there for a long weekend and check off another country on my World Karaoke Tour. The concept here was similar to the reasoning I’d employed when I added Canada to the tour via a weekend jaunt to Montreal in August 2010. I’m constantly looking to increase the tally of countries in which I’ve sung; and while I understandably get enthused over exotic locales like Easter Island, there’s no reason for me to overlook the “easy” destinations (especially those that are immediately adjacent to my home country). Still, as I headed to the airport, my excitement was tempered by a sense of disquiet. I wondered whether my nightmare portended a tragic outcome for this journey. My initial reaction was to associate the dream with my fear of flying, and to interpret it as a premonition of a plane crash (This speculation was heightened as a result of bad weather in New York on the day of my departure; I become especially nervous when there’s a predicted risk of thunderstorms around the time of takeoff). But did the dream serve as a more generalized warning regarding my impending travel? In the dream, stepping onto the cloud seemed innocuous enough at the time; but it became the type of fateful and irreversible decision that would inexorably lead to my demise.
Saturday morning and afternoon: sightseeing
Things started out innocently enough. I arrived in Mexico’s capital city on a Friday night. On Saturday morning, I headed out to Mexico City’s newest museum: El Museo Soumaya (see photo, above right), which had just opened about two months prior to my visit.
This museum displays the art collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, who according to Forbes is the wealthiest man in the world. The emphasis of the Soumaya’s holdings is on European and Mexican art. Among the highlights is a large trove of Rodin sculptures, including a copy of “Le Penseur” (“The Thinker”). Also included are works by such artists as Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Dali, Miró, El Greco, Tintoretto, and (as you would expect in a Mexican museum) Diego Rivera. Moreover, the Soumaya is one of those museums whose architecture is as notable as the treasures it houses. As shown here, the interior of the Soumaya is evocative of New York City’s Guggenheim, with the focal point a gently sloping ramp that curves upward and gradually ascends to the top level. The concept may not be original, but it’s well-executed.
After getting some culture in the museum, I explored Mexican history at the Palacio Nacional (National Palace). One of the signature attractions of the palace is its murals by Diego Rivera that vividly dramatize his country’s past.
Then I had a stop to make outside the city. I made an excursion to the suburb of Naucalpan, to experience a very distinctive-looking house. That home is known unofficially as the “Nautilus house,” due to its resemblance to the sea creature of that name. I’d come across a photo of the Nautilus house on the internet, while perusing a website that showed examples of unusual architecture from around the world. When I realized that this unique home was located in the vicinity of Mexico City, and that I would be visiting that very metropolis, I knew I had to see such an architectural gem in person. Only one problem: despite my formidable googling skills, I couldn’t find an address for the Nautilus house. What to do?
I took a chance and emailed the architect who had designed the Nautilus house. I didn’t even expect to hear back. But his firm responded and contacted the house’s owners (yes, there’s a family that enjoys the enviable distinction of living in this remarkable abode!). The result: I was invited to visit the Nautilus house as a special guest of the owners.
So on the Saturday afternoon of my weekend in Mexico, I ventured out to Naucalpan (my mode of transportation was a private car service arranged by my hotel, and that was a good choice because even with detailed directions, the house was hard to find. My driver, however, was able to telephone the house and converse with the residents in Spanish to obtain the necessary navigational assistance). The Nautilus house is situated in a gated enclave that abounds with elegant homes, but those other residences are attractive in a much more conventional way. I could only imagine what the neighbors think of this bizarre habitation in their midst.
Upon my arrival at the Nautilus house, I was treated to outstanding hospitality by the occupants. They welcomed me inside and gave me a full tour. As you can see in the photo on the left, the interior was just as spectacular as the exterior. (More photos taken inside the Nautilus house can be seen in the full album of photos from my Mexico City weekend, which you can view here.) The patriarch of the household and his son then took me for a walk around the neighborhood. By the way, it turned out that conversing with the family was not a problem, as its members spoke English fluently.
Saturday night: karaoke
I’d already had a full day and seen some cool stuff; but after I circled back to Mexico City, it was time for the activity that supplied the principal purpose of my trip. I was off to sing karaoke! Continue reading →
First of all, I want to say that I’m blown away by the response that my previous post (the one about Santacon) has generated. I never would have expected an honor like the “Freshly Pressed” selection just four posts into my blogging career. In fact, I had not known that this coveted endorsement even existed. On Monday morning I was just some guy bugging my Facebook friends to read my latest blog entries. And now . . . I’m pleased to report that this site, launched a mere 11 days ago, has already welcomed visitors from at least 102 countries.
So thank you all for coming, and for taking the time to read my little jottings. I’m particularly excited about the geographic diversity of you, my readers. This site is global in scope (being that it focuses on my world travels), and it’s important to me to hear perspectives from people in every corner of this big blue marble we call Earth (and yes, I’m aware that spherical objects such as marbles don’t have corners. Work with me here).
With Santacon now in my rear-view mirror, I’m preparing for my long weekend in Lisbon, for which I leave on December 29. While there, I plan on indulging in some karaoke singing, which would make Portugal country no. 24 on my World Karaoke Tour. Any singing that I do in Lisbon will most likely occur in a pub or restaurant. An eatery or drinkery is, of course, the standard setting in which karaoke is delivered, at least in the Western world (a variation, popular in Asia and some parts of the United States, involves renting a private room with your friends and singing only to each other. In a future post I’ll have more to say about private-room karaoke, often dubbed “karaoke box,” which was made famous in a scene in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”).
But in a growing number of cities and towns around the world, a very different type of karaoke experience is available. Some enterprising taxi drivers have installed karaoke machines in their vehicles.If you’re lucky enough to hail such an enhanced cab, you and your fellow passengers can sing while en route to your destination. Or you can board the taxi without even having a particular place to go, because if you’re like me, karaoke is your destination. 🙂 There is generally no charge for the opportunity to sing, beyond the fare that you’re already paying for the journey (although grateful passengers often tip extravagantly). And best of all, you don’t have to wait behind a long rotation of singers for your next turn at the mic.
As I will discuss below, I recently had the pleasure of taking a ride in a “karaoke cab” in Washington, DC. A search of Google and YouTube indicates that similar taxis have proliferated recently — sometimes using names like “Cabioke” to brand the multifaceted service that they offer. In addition to the capital city of the United States, they now roam the streets of such metropolises as Bangkok; Singapore; Taipei; Budapest; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Dallas; Nashville; St. Louis; and Charlotte. They’ve even cropped up in smaller municipalities including Tacoma, Washington; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Chico, California. So pervasive has this trend become that a filmmaker in Thailand is raising funds to make a movie about a karaoke cab. That one is so going in my Netflix queue when it comes out . . .
The man who made possible my Washingtonian karaoke cab experience is Joel Laguidao, who drives for the Red Top Cab Company in northern Virginia. A charismatic Filipino, Joel was recently featured with his vehicle on a segment of the American morning television program, the “Today Show”:
Joel first came to my attention this past summer, when one of my Facebook friends linked to an article about him on NPR’s website. Let me backtrack a little here, because my November 2011 ride with Joel marked the culmination of a nearly three-year quest.
2008: the Memorex fiasco
My odyssey began in December 2008 when I received a call from my friend Colin, who told me that he’d just taken a ride in a karaoke cab right here in New York City. A Google search quickly informed me that a fleet of six karaoke cabs was being dispatched from selected points in the Big Apple. It was a promotion sponsored by Memorex: if you sang and permitted Memorex to videotape your performance, you could earn a free ride in the cab. I would be only too happy to sing for my fare.
There was one problem: I soon learned that the special cabs were only operating in New York on a temporary basis, for a period of just a few weeks. The day on which I received the hot tip was, in fact, the final day of the promotion. Even worse, it turned out that the Memorex fleet of karaoke cabs had been dodging cable cars in San Francisco a month earlier, during the same time that I’d been visiting that city– and I’d been tragically unaware of their presence. So I missed out on them twice!
I regarded the Memorex debacle as a massive intelligence failure on my part. But in fairness, maybe there was no need for regrets. I looked more closely at the website that Memorex had maintained for its vagabond fleet; and I discovered that the singing took place in front of the cab while it was still parked at the curb. You would collect your free ride after you sang. But once you boarded the taxi, the karaoke would be over. How lame is that — a karaoke cab where you don’t actually get to sing inside the cab? As Lionel Hutz would say, that’s the most blatant case of false advertising since The Never Ending Story!
Regardless of whether one of the Memorex cabs would have provided a satisfactory experience, one thing was certain. With the expiration of the Memorex promotion, there were no karaoke cabs of any nature to be found in New York City. That appalling absence continues today: over 13,000 licensed cabs in New York City, and not a single one has on-board karaoke. If I wanted to become a singing passenger, I needed to broaden my geographic horizons. But that was okay; after all, traveling for karaoke is what I do.
2010: the Charlotte incident
My second failed attempt occurred in September 2010. I was flying from Newark, New Jersey to Rio de Janeiro. During that voyage, I was going to have an approximately six-hour layover in Charlotte, North Carolina where I was changing planes (Charlotte Douglas International Airport is a major hub for US Airways, the airline that was conveying me to Brazil). Knowing I would have all that time to kill in the Charlotte metro area, I was excited to learn of the karaoke cab servicing that region. A jaunt in it would be a memorable way to start my vacation. So I contacted the driver. We exchanged voice-mail messages. The message left by the driver (who shall remain nameless) said he would be “glad to pick [me] up,” and he added that I should call him back on Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week (my layover in Charlotte would be the Thursday of the next week) to advise him as to what time I would be arriving in his city. What I didn’t know yet was that I would never hear from Charlotte’s karaoke cab driver again.
The following week, with my departure to Charlotte fast approaching, I called him as instructed. I began to grow concerned when the driver didn’t respond to any of the three voice-mail messages I ended up leaving for him. In those messages, I had attempted to set up a time and place for him to meet me in downtown Charlotte (I felt it would be easiest if he met me there and drove me back to the airport). He was also informed of the time that my flight was expected to land. But as I boarded the plane to Charlotte, I still had not received confirmation from the driver that he would meet me later that day.
My arrival in Charlotte was on time. Immediately after deplaning, I put in a call to the driver, but his phone went straight to voice-mail. So I left a detailed message, and proceeded to the the ground transportation area in the airport. Time elapsed, and my phone didn’t ring. I tried calling the driver again, and again was greeted with his outgoing voice-mail message. Undaunted, I headed to the bus lanes and boarded an express bus to Charlotte’s central business district (What the hell else was I going to do during a six hour layover? CLT had not yet joined the emerging trend of airports with karaoke).
When I reached downtown Charlotte, the karaoke cab driver again failed to answer his phone. I even contacted his dispatcher, who had no better luck than I did in trying to track down the AWOL driver. In fact, she advised that she hadn’t heard from him all day. To this day, I have never heard back from the karaoke cab driver who stood me up in Charlotte.
Happily, though, despite the dismal start to my holiday, my ensuing excursion to South America and Easter Island turned out to be one of my all-time great vacations. Sometime I’ll tell you about my adventures on that trip — including my attempt to outrun killer dogs on Easter Island. Singing in a karaoke cab, however, remained an unfulfilled wish.
When I learned about Joel and his karaoke cab in Washinton, DC, I just knew that this time things would be different. It helped that D.C. is much closer to New York than Charlotte is. It’s very easy to get down to D.C. from New York for a weekend trip (which I do several times a year; after all, I attended law school there, so I have many friends in the area and I retain an affection for the city). As a result, unlike with my one-time layover in Charlotte, I would feel no pressure to make my ride happen on any particular day. If things fell through for whatever reason, I could just try again.
Using my proprietary research skills, I managed to get in touch with Joel, and to speak with him on the telephone (The fact that he actually answered his phone was the first good sign. Joel is a genuinely nice guy). We quickly settled on a mutually convenient weekend for me to become his passenger.
On Friday, November 11, I took the train down to D.C. after work. The following afternoon, I met up with my friend Becca, who had agreed to serve as videographer for my groundbreaking taxi ride. We took the Metro to the Ballston stop in Arlington, Virginia (I chose that location because the Red Top Cab Company is based in northern Virginia and I wanted to make the pick-up point convenient for Joel, who did not yet know me.). At the appointed time, Joel Laguidao showed up with his cab outside the Ballston station entrance. Becca and I got in and took our seats, and we were off.
We didn’t actually have anywhere specific to get to, other than a general desire to end up in the city. So we spent nearly an hour as Joel’s passengers. Joel drove us over the 14th Street Bridge that spans the Potomac River, and we proceeded past the Washington Monument and towards the Capitol building. But I wasn’t in town for sightseeing. While glimpsing national landmarks through the window of Joel’s Crown Victoria, I was doing something that I’d been striving to make possible for almost three years: I was singing karaoke in a moving vehicle! My bucket list had just shrunk by one.
Here is one of my selections from that magical cab ride: John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Fittingly for that anthem of cooperation and harmony, Joel joined in with me (and I apologize in advance for the slight technical glitch with the audio):
And for a much different vibe, here I am performing “La Bamba”:
Joel is a passionate performer in his own right. Here you can watch him belting out a classic ballad by Journey:
Joel has a brand-new Facebook page! So if you like what you’ve seen of him here, please stop by his page and show him some love.
Now at this point, you may be wondering what recourse you may have if you do not live in, and are unable to visit, one of the locales where you can order a karaoke cab. Well, the obvious solution is to buy a car of your own with a built-in karaoke machine. Carpooling with your co-workers will never be the same. And if you scoff at my suggestion, I will have you know that someone else already came up with this idea, all the way back in 2003. In that auspicious year, the Chinese automaker Geely made a karaoke machine standard equipment on its BL (Beauty Leopard) coupe. And while you may not have heard of Geely, the company is not some piddling little buggy-maker; in 2010, it bought Volvo. Admittedly, the BL coupe is no longer in production. (Geely never responded to my email asking whether the in-dashboard karaoke machine is available on any of the models in its current product line.)
A friend recently asked me why I enjoyed the karaoke cab so much, given my previously-stated preference for playing to a crowd rather than singing in isolation. And admittedly, it would seem that the available listener base is quite limited when you’re inside the sealed environment of a motorcar. I guess I can’t completely explain my inconsistency. I’m pretty sure that my voice was audible outstide the vehicle, so that may be a part of it. But only a part, since no one on the street would have been able to hear me for any great length of time. Maybe this is just one of those instances where I have to say “I liked it,” and leave it at that.
By the way, another form of “karaoke on the go” is to sing while on a floating vessel. In October 2008, I took an evening karaoke cruise around Manhattan Island. I understand that karaoke nights are also widely held on international cruise ships, although I’ve never booked passage on one of those behemoths of the sea. One of my work colleagues has suggested that I should take advantage of this phenomenon, and that now that I’ve been able to check off six continents on my World Karaoke Tour, I should set a goal of singing in each of the world’s oceans. Hey, there are only five of them, so that would not be too long of a list to work through. I will say that I’m taking this proposal quite seriously.
Meanwhile, now that I have conquered both land and sea, I am looking upward for my next great challenge. My newest ambition is to sing karaoke on an airplane. I’ve worked out most of the details, and it would go something like this: Since commercial airlines have not yet exhibited the good sense to include karaoke among their in-flight entertainment options, I will need to provide my own instrumental music and lyrics. So I will need to be on a flight with wi-fi; then, using my laptop, I can log on to one of those internet karaoke sites. Ideally, I would like to stream a live video feed of my performance so that people on the ground can serve as a virtual audience. Now, I realize that my fellow passengers will be unlikely to indulge even a few minutes of a singer in seat 25A. To avoid provoking air rage, I may need to hole myself up in the lavatory, as I join my own version of the “mile-high club.” This plan is complicated and has a lot of moving parts, but it just might work!
Whether or not the H-Bomb phenomenon takes to the skies, of one thing I’m sure: I will ascend no higher than cruising altitude. Space will not be the final frontier for me. I hate amusement park rides such as roller-coasters; I get motion sickness when subjected to those g-forces (although curiously, I rarely feel airsick when flying through turbulence). So I could never become an astronaut. Even if I somehow acquired the boatloads of funds that would enable me to afford a private spaceflight, I could never bring myself to sign up for such a mission. The H-Bomb will have to remain earthbound. But there’s a whole lot more of the world left to cover on my World Karaoke Tour!
Hello there! I'm an attorney and worldwide karaoke singer who's based in New York City. So far I've sung karaoke in 67 countries around the globe, plus Easter Island - as well as all 50 U.S. states! This website chronicles my World Karaoke Tour as well as my general travel adventures. Learn more