“Take it away Mr. Modise,” the operator of the Gaborone Sun karaoke machine says to an elderly man holding a cordless microphone at the ready.
Mr. Modise does indeed take it away – to 1960 when he belts out Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” that would probably have somehow reached the Bechuanaland Protectorate. His act may be nothing to write to his home village about but he sure nails the lyrics that appear on a video screen next to the karaoke machine.
Placed atop wood tables ranged around the bar are thick song books and small pieces of paper on which intending singers write their names, song title and index number. The paper is then conveyed to the operator-slash-lead-singer who calls singers up to the stage when their turn comes.
A Chinese couple have been huddled together at a table on one end of the bar, conversing spiritedly in what has to be Mandarin and after some time, the man gets up and goes to the stage to submit their selection.
When Mr. Modise is done, the karaoke man calls the Chinese man over but the latter shakes his head “no” and makes to get and walk over to the stage. The karaoke man gets a hint and asks: “You want me to sing it for you?”
And so the operator launches into some obscure song that you will never hear at a neighbourhood snooker-and-jukebox bar anywhere in Botswana.
It is a slow night at this point and when no one is stepping up, the operator has to singlevoicedly bear the burden of entertaining patrons. His voice has to be loud enough to drown out what is literally music to the ears of people in the gambling den that is coming out of fruit machines. On the whole, his singing voice is above average but had there been policemen around, he would now be sitting in a cell at the Central Police Station for murdering Macy Gray’s “I Try.” Not all raspy voices are born equal.
Soon a young couple walks in, sits a few metres away from the stage and after going through the song book, the girl submits her selection at a point that the karaoke operator is still working his way through what must have been a hit song some 20 or so years ago.
The girl’s name is Fifi, he announces when he is done, and will sing Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” If Fifi ever participates in “My Star”, she would definitely end up in the top three. She has a honey-dipped voice that she is in total control of, her breath control is excellent and she does a terrific job because rather than imitate Mariah, she makes the song her own. Fifi would return to the stage again and again, at one point doing a duet with the operator on “Endless Love” by Mariah and Luther Vandross.
Around this time, the place is filling up, the waiting service is fast becoming Third World and the operator can finally get a break as a parade of singers take turns at the microphone.
Of this lot, an elderly white man becomes an instant hit with the audience as he tackles Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County.” Those who cannot sing – as another white man in a group of uniformly dressed (jacket, tie, white shirt) golfers – apply non-musical talent to spice up their performance.
From the moment he came in, this man had been champing at the bit, contorting his body in a series of seemingly painful postures that very few (especially on this continent) would call dancing and scrunching up his face. Called up to the stage, he dons a black trilby hat he has pulled out from somewhere over his pilgarlic pate and gives one of the most energetic performances of the night.
Karaoke night at G-Sun comes every Thursday, bringing together a young and old multi-cultural cast of singers as well as general entertainers who merely use the mike as a prop. It is good clean fun but out of respect for art (and the dead) some classics like TLC’s “Waterfalls” should be legally protected from lyrical destruction by karaoke singers. Otherwise that young Motswana woman is going to make Left Eye turn in her grave when she gets to the rap part and messes it up very badly.