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He couldn't have been more than five feet tall. I guessed him to be around 50, taking into account that Asian men often look much younger than they are. The music began, a flattened sound I imagined could only have been created by an orchestra playing from within an enormous tin box. He gripped the microphone with white knuckles and, when his cue came, he sang, "Are the reeves are budown! And the sky is guday! I went for a wok! On a winter's day!" After the first two lines, he fell out of sync with the words flashing by on the large TV screen above his head. His voice was loud in spurts, for a known word or part of the chorus, but mostly it was soft and quiet -- mumbles through a foreign verse, a few disconcerting squeaky noises during the instrumental break. The karaoke jockey (KJ) was visibly agitated, his arms flapping in frustration as he tried to lead the confused crooner back to the right lyrics, the right pitch, the right tune, and, at one point, even the right song. The singer, however, looked as though he was having a great time. A minute into his performance, he politely stepped aside to allow a waddling old white man with a beer belly the size of twins into the unisex bathroom behind the "stage." There were no more than 20 people in the small bar, but it was enough to make the place look crowded.

I had thought it would be funny to drag my posse to a place named after an amused fish for one of its many karaoke nights. Little did I know that this random idea to entertain myself while annoying my friends would lead me straight to the underbelly of a thriving San Diego subculture. The Tickled Trout in Mission Valley became my doorway to this underworld's inhabitants -- the Karaokians.

During a break between singers, I stared at one of three television screens on which the KJ was playing a scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"Have you seen a small CD case?" I looked to my left to find a woman who resembled my high school PTA president -- middle-aged, short and stocky, tight brown curls framing her bulldog face.

"No, sorry. Nothing was on this table when we sat here," I said politely. Then I turned back to the screen.

"It was right here," she said, pointing emphatically at the empty spot next to my Guinness.

"Listen," I said calmly, now giving her my full attention. "When I arrived at this table, there was nothing on it but a napkin. I hope you find your CDs, I really do. But they aren't here, and no one here would take them. Okay?"

She didn't believe me. This became obvious when she began circling our table, looking underneath it suspiciously, then back up, as though she might catch one of us passing off the stolen goods. Finally, she turned back to her table, where she proceeded to accuse each of her three companions until one of them produced her case from the spot where she had hidden it before she went to the restroom. In the CD case were her cherished homemade karaoke discs.

Empty Orchestra

Karaoke, defined as "a music entertainment system that provides prerecorded accompaniment to popular songs that a performer sings live by following the words on a video screen," was introduced in Japan in the late 1970s. "Karaoke" directly translates as "empty orchestra," or more loosely, "without a band." No one can be sure exactly where this phenomenon began, but a popular story places the beginning in a snack bar in Kobe City.

According to this widely believed tale, a guitarist was suddenly unable to perform at the bar; in an attempt to keep his patrons entertained, the proprietor prepared tapes of the music from prior performances and invited volunteer vocalists to sing along.

There is one man, however, who is credited with inventing the first karaoke system (8-track accompaniment tapes and custom-built 8-track player) -- Daisuke Inoue. Though we can thank (or curse) this drummer from Kobe for kicking off the karaoke craze, his failure to patent his invention has kept him from reaping the rewards. He first leased out his karaoke machines in Kobe in 1971, but Inoue did not actually try his own invention until 1999, while celebrating his 59th birthday.

In 2004, when he was 64 years old, Inoue received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for "providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other." As a token for the humorous award, which is a pun on the word "ignoble," Inoue was gifted with a medallion made of tinfoil. If he had filed his patent in 1971, he'd be a billionaire.

Soon after Inoue's invention, manufacturing companies picked up on the idea and began churning out better systems. Ten years later, with the help of laser disc technology, lyric sheets were thrown away and words were displayed on TV screens. After that, it wasn't long before someone added graphics to accompany instrumental breaks (those cheesy beach scenes and photos of lovers walking hand in hand).

Today, wannabe singers (like the bulldog I encountered at the Tickled Trout) can make their own CDs that they can cue up in modern karaoke systems found in bars around the world.

Before embarking on my karaoke quest, my experience with what I thought was a silly pastime was limited to three hazy memories. The first time I tried karaoke I was 21. It was 1998 and my date, a tall gangly thing I met in Pacific Beach, brought me to a dive in East County. After he bought my third margarita, he persuaded me to take the stage. With liquid confidence, I belted out the words to "I Feel Lucky" by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Later that night I learned that my improvised "meow" and growl had delighted the roomful of middle-aged men, who, at the time I sang, seemed nothing more than a sea of flannel and denim.

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