Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ethiopia: Something to Sing About: Karaoke Song Rooms in Addis Ababa

Mireille de Villiers Addis Fortune

15 November 2010

Terry Sharp scored 100pc on his rendition of "Hotel California" at Rainbow Korean Restaurant's karaoke.

Undercover singers in the shower wishing to debut their live performance careers to friends can do so at Rainbow Korean Restaurant, located around Bole Rwanda near the Japanese Embassy Residence, where karaoke is available round the clock.

Karaoke, a Japanese word for the action of singing to music with the singing voices cut out but the lyrics displayed on a screen is usually referred to as visiting song rooms in South Korea.

The restaurant was opened eight years ago, in May 2003, by Tara Park with her husband, Cho Kyu Sun, two native Koreans.

"It is our culture, after eating, to move on to singing and have fun," Park told Fortune at the restaurant, last week.

Ideally, one should book the room containing the machine in advance and be at least seven people as it is a spacious room and one might deprive other people of the pleasure of singing if a small number of people hog the machine.

The machine, imported from South Korea, comes with a menu containing the names of all the songs programmed onto it. Users programme the song's code, found next to its title in the book, into the machine. The music starts and the words are displayed on the screen, being coloured in as the music goes along so that singers can sing it in time.

Following the artist's name in the menu is the first couple of words of the song, useful in cases where songs have similar names or one cannot remember who sang it originally.

Of its two karaoke machines, the same kinds used in the extremely popular song rooms in Korea, the one Park has had for five years broke two weeks ago. The "new" one, which she only acquired last year, offers songs in more languages than only Korean.

"I would say about 70pc of the songs are Korean, 20pc pop songs (English), and the remaining 10pc in other languages, which include a little Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian," Park told Fortune.

The customers singing karaoke are mostly Korean and Japanese people; United States (US) embassy people who, due to their country's large military presence in South Korea, have experience with the culture; and other Westerners celebrating special occasions.

Park moved to Ethiopia to learn to speak English. Koreans generally have an image of Africa as being a jungle, she said.

"My mother still warns me to careful of the lions," she told Fortune, adding that she loves the climate. "The weather is so wonderful."

Park had 10 years of experience in the business in Korea, in both Korean and Japanese restaurants. She still cooks every day and has trained the chefs, of whom she employs eight in Bole and six in the other branch, Arirang Korean Restaurant in Old Airport which she opened about six months ago. All the staff members are Ethiopian.

"Now they are even better than me at preparing some dishes, with the exception of the soup, which is not part of Ethiopia's cooking culture," she told Fortune.

"Many people confuse Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food with each other," she said.

While Japanese soup is included with the kimchi (fermented spicy cabbage and Korean signature dish) and seaweed soup dishes (20 Br each), and the mandu (60 Br for eight pieces) are reminiscent of Chinese dumplings, the other dishes on the expansive menu are very Korean.

Korean food comprises mainly kimchi, rice, and soup, with a variety of side dishes. All food orders are served with side dishes like kimchi, mushrooms, peanuts, and other vegetables arranged in small white bowls for everyone at the table to share.

Rice dishes in as many varieties as it can conceivably be dished up, are ample: Steamed white sticky rice (20 Br); fried rice with vegetables (40 Br), kimchi (50 Br), and beef or chicken (50 Br); as well as bibimbap (60 Br), rice mixed with vegatbles, meat, and egg, and dolsot bibimbap (70 Br), the same dish in a hot clay pot, which tastes as if one was eating it in its country of origin.

Park makes the kimchi herself but most of the sauces, soy, fish, and chilli, are important to keep the dishes authentic.

Noodle dishes range between 40 Br and 80 Br and there are eight beef dishes, six chicken dishes, eight pork dishes, and five fish dishes. The bulgogi (70 Br), beef ribs, and samgeupsal (90 Br), fatty pork meat, both barbequed and eaten with sauces and garlic, wrapped in salad leaves, are likewise the real deal.

In Korea, these dishes are usually cooked by the customer's patrons themselves at the table. While Park tried that in the very beginning, it did not work as most Westerners do not enjoy it.

Special dishes range between 100 Br and 400 Br, all exclusive of 15pc value-added tax (VAT) which is added later. As most other restaurants, the drinks prices are where the profits lie, but it enables the restaurant to offer the karaoke service free of charge, as long as one eats and drinks.

A variety of hard liquor as well as red wine, produced both locally (100 Br) and abroad (350 Br), and available by the glass (40 Br) are on offer, in addition to soju (100 Br), traditional Korean firewater and a near essential to every celebration.

Being as strong as it is, soju goes a long way in transforming stage-frightened singers into would-be superstars.

Surprisingly, the English music one can perform to covers a wide range of genres: golden oldies rock (Rolling Stones), alternative (Radiohead), rock (Nirvana), and pop (Britney Spears) as well as less mainstream singers like Nora Jones and Stevie Wonder.

Situated in a variety of small buildings on the compound, there is the song room by the entrance, a grass roofed cottage opposite to it, clean and tidy toilets at the far end, and canopies at the back, slightly separated from the others by a small garden.

The landlady, who also lives on the premises of Rainbow, wanted to keep the place furnished in an Ethiopian style, according to Park. Apart from some pictures advertising the origins of the owners, the wooden furniture all attest to their adopted and the restaurant's host city, Addis Abeba.
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On the other side of town, Arirang is decorated after a more Korean fashion. Patrons are even required to take their shoes off, as they normally would in a restaurant in South Korea.

Arirang is quiet in the evenings and during vacation times, and, as a result, it hosts no karaoke, unlike its counterpart in Bole where people are more likely to want to party, according to Park.

"Fridays to Sundays are our busiest times but lunchtime is always quiet," she told Fortune.

Rainbow is open between 11:30am and 2:30pm for lunch and again from 5:30pm until 10:00pm for dinner, unless customers want to stay, perhaps singing, until later. While she may be far from home, karaoke has remained too big a part of her culture for the restaurant to likely kick singers out some closing time.

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