Singing goodbye to stress

January 14, 2000|By Monica Eng | Monica Eng,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- 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.

It is not a tall, skinny hot tub, but what Cho calls a "cyber jukebox." 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, who brought this technology to the U.S. audience in November. "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 has installed seven of his stress killers in a storefront at 3246 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. 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. 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 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 '60s, '70s and '80s," says Cho, who came to the U.S. from Korea in 1980 to do graduate work in international relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. "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.

"We've got some Italian and Spanish songs and some reggaes," says Cho, 43. "I think we even have some L.L. Cool J raps."

By far, the largest selections of songs are in the Korean section of the catalog, which draws from popular and folk traditions. It also includes 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. ... At a norae bang you are paying by the hour so you have pressure to fast-fast pick up your song."

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

"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 last month Cho quietly opened Cyber Can Cafe Karaoke on a strip that has recently experienced a economic renaissance with the opening of several Korean businesses.

But Cho's plans for the machines go far beyond his little cafe. In the future, he'd like to sell them (in custom-made 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. "So I want to give them a better way to kill their stress with singing."

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