Ole Blue Eyes is Back

We still live in a world of wonders. This came back to me in force as I read Norimitsu Onishi’s article in The New York Times on the lethal impact of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on Philippine karaoke where, apparently, more than one ill-timed rendition has ended in a long good-bye. Frank in his rat-pack prime probably would have loved this. He was, after all, not averse to the occasional dust-up himself, once calling Australian journalists a bunch of “fags, pimps and whores”, eliciting much outrage but few outright denials.

I have no singing voice myself; anyone who’s heard me will tell you that, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t succumbed to the lure of the microphone from time to time. Once, to my great embarrassment and the amusement of the general crowd, I was hauled up to the front of a Kasumigaseki bar much frequented by low and mid-level Japanese diplomats to give my personal rendition of “The Green, Green Grass of Home” while topless American blondes cavorted in hayfields on a screen in the background. I never went back.

Onishi’s description of Philippine karaoke bar culture was a revelation to me with its depictions of shoot-outs over a badly-done John Denver and the heroism of the female “Guest Relations Officers.” I was especially taken with the use of gay men in many bars as de-facto neutral peace officers, called in to cool things down when the temperature and testosterone around the microphone get a little too high. Where do they go on their nights off, I wonder, to drink a few beers, have some laughs and tell war stories about those straight karaoke evenings when it really does start raining men?

Onishi’s article itself is the source of some, perhaps unintentional, amusement. Coming from the pages of an American newspaper, it does seem a little rich to depict the Philippines as being “awash in more than one million illegal guns.” Why you could probably scare up more than that within a ten-mile radius of Columbus Circle.

Is the Philippines really a more dangerous place than Manitoba, let’s say? One friend who’s lived in both says yes. He recalls a time in the early ‘60s when fellow classmates at his Manila school were kept at home on election day just in case. But it’s hard to generalize about a country on the basis of the single experience of a twelve-year old boy. And what makes a country violent to begin with?

Truth be told, the Philippines has been given a raw deal over the past couple of centuries, first the Spaniards with their vicious governors and even more vicious religion. Then the Americans came first as saviours, but soon started shooting and then didn’t leave for the better part of a century. It was the period, of course. Pretty much the same time as the Americans came to the Philippines to oust the Spanish, the British, with compliant Canadians in tow, were finishing mopping up in South Africa.

It may not be surprising, then, that Sinatra and karaoke don’t mix well in the Philippines. After all, given their past experience with the blue eyes, Filipinos might be expected to get a little excited when up at the mike they start remembering the same old song.

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