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Sing Away The Blues



 Sing Away The Blues

 Monica Eng

From tai chi to ginseng to yoga, Americans have long looked East for antidotes to stress. But David Cho thinks he has found the ultimate Asian import to defrazzle the American psyche. It's shaped like a Coke can, is about the size of a photo booth, and holds up to three people in its cozy confines. No, it is not a tall, skinny hot tub, but what Cho calls a "cyber jukebox." Despite the name, this new invention has nothing to do with the Internet. Instead, it is essentially a portable karaoke booth that Cho believes will lower the blood pressure of the American masses.

"A lot of people get stressed, and they think they have to go to the gym and exercise, but I think that singing is one of the best ways to kill stress," says Cho. "I don't know if there is scientific data about it, but I think when you sing and smile, you don't get stressed but when you're worried and sad you do."

Cho, a former graduate student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has installed seven of his stress killers in a storefront in Chicago that he calls the Cyber Can Cafe Karaoke. Each booth has a big TV (on which the words to the songs and random nature images appear), a karaoke console, two microphones, a catalog of songs, and a wooden bench.

Singers must deposit $2 for each song, which they choose by punching its catalog number into the machine. The catalog includes thousands of songs in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, and about 500 in English.

About half of the English language songs were preprogrammed by the manufacturer, and the other half were hand-picked by Cho, who leaned heavily on his preferences from his college days.

"I like classic rock and pop songs from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties," says Cho, who came to the United States from Korea in 1980 to do graduate work in international relations at FDU-Teaneck. "When I went to college the Beatles, Elvis, Elton John, Tom Jones, and Neil Diamond were big, and so I emphasized those songs. I also like that 'Titanic' song, so I put it on here too."

The selection also includes a fair sampling of country, folk, and even international tunes. "We've got some Italian and Spanish songs and some reggae," says Cho, 43. "I think we even have some L.L. Cool J raps."

By far, the largest selection of songs are in the Korean section of the catalog, which draws from popular and folk traditions. It also includes several songs originally sung in English but translated into Korean with what Cho calls "funnier or sadder lyrics." These include Korean covers of Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl" and Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting."

Although karaoke may seem like a fizzled trend to some Americans, its popularity has never flagged in Chicago's Asian-American community, which still supports several karaoke bars and private singing rooms, called norae bang in Korean (these new machines are called Corae Corae Norae Bang or, literally, "shouting shouting music boxes"). But what makes Cho think karaoke lovers will choose his machines over the bars or norae bangs?

"This one is nice and clean, and we even have a no-smoking section," he says. "At a karaoke bar you have to buy a drink for $5 or $6 or the bartender will get too mad. And then you have to wait for sometimes 50 minutes to sing in front of people, and that can make a lot of pressure.

"This is a private studio, and you can just drive by and decide you want to sing one song and take as long as you want to choose your song. At a norae bang you are paying by the hour, so you have pressure to fast pick your song."

Even for those who like to sing in front of crowds, Cho says, his cyber jukeboxes can be useful rehearsal facilities. 

"Here we have fantastic sound, and you can practice by yourself," he says. "So let's say you want to sing the Beatles' 'Hey Jude.' You cannot sing it two times in a karaoke bar. People don't want to hear 'Hey Jude' two times. But you can practice that song here, two times, six times, it doesn't matter."

After seeing an ad for the contraptions last April, Cho called the company that makes them and was invited to fly to Korea to check them out. He was so excited about the music machines that he signed up for the exclusive rights to distribute them in North America. In September they arrived in the country, and in November Cho quietly opened Cyber Can Cafe Karaoke on Bryn Mawr Avenue.

But Cho's plans for the machines go far beyond his little cafe. In the future, he'd like to sell them (in custommade shapes like dinosaurs or cell phones) to restaurants, stores, banquet halls, and corporations to help relieve shopping, eating, and workday stresses. He also plans to open a second cafe in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., to treat what he believes is one of the state's most stressed locales.

"I went to visit the University of Illinois, and I noticed that too many students were wasting their time on weekends just sitting in the dormitories and drinking too much alcohol," he says. "I know that everybody is stressed, but especially students who go to famous colleges like this, so I want to give them a better way to kill their stress with singing."

For an extra $10, Cho will make a CD of patrons singing to their synthesized accompaniment, or for an extra $5, he will make an audio tape. Those who bring in a blank audio tape can record free.

Cho says in Korea the cyber jukeboxes have become a popular place to serenade your sweetie and even to dance. "You just push this button and you can have a disco in here," Cho says, as he starts a pre-programmed dance track and busts a few moves. "People use these for dancing in Korea already." But no matter how you use his cyber jukeboxes, Cho emphasizes that the most important thing is for customers to enjoy themselves, take their time, and not feel stressed.

"If you want to come and sing one song, we don't care if you stay 10 minutes or 20 minutes and sing, scream, or cry in there," he says of the machines. "We don't push you to hurry up. But if you are in the bar or the norae bang, the time is clicking no matter what. Here you pay by the song, so there is no pressure."


Monica Eng writes for the Chicago Tribune 

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