WASHINGTON AT PLAY : Life as Cabaret

Karaoke, the Universal Language

Falls Church carpet installer Otoñel Rivera belts out a song with Luis Alejandro Vasquez, 9, at Las Americas in Falls Church. Rivera is a regular on Fridays for karaoke. Owner Freddy Merino said he tries to instill a family atmosphere:
Falls Church carpet installer Otoñel Rivera belts out a song with Luis Alejandro Vasquez, 9, at Las Americas in Falls Church. Rivera is a regular on Fridays for karaoke. Owner Freddy Merino said he tries to instill a family atmosphere: "It is a team: music, cooking and waitresses." (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

One in a series on how Washingtonians

spend their summer.

By day, Adalid Saavedra paves roads. His sweat runs and drips in the suffocating outdoor oven of a hot Washington summer.

By night, he's cool. He is Mexican balladeer Alejandro Fernandez. He steps in front of the crowd, grips the mike and croons in velvety Spanish Craaaaazzy as violins soar. They call me crazy because I talk to the birds .

The crowd is low-key. For a few minutes, it is his. Until the next karaoke act.

It's Friday night at Las Americas, a small restaurant in Falls Church where karaoke in Spanish is on the menu six nights a week. Outside is a strip mall on the edge of the city's immigrant community, far from the Bolivian foothills where Saavedra grew up -- where everyone in Saavedra's family, he would say later, is a singer.

Just as Saavedra and others brave of voice and full of abandon are tonight.

In the Washington suburbs, where this Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant sits next to a Vietnamese deli, karaoke transcends borders. At hole-in-the-wall cafes and crowded bars, song lists come in Filipino and Korean and Spanish and Chinese, allowing laymen of all tongues to unleash their inner singers.

Some things are universal no matter the language: A few singers have voices smooth as silk; others are abysmal. Songs are steeped in memory and distance. And many are about heartbreak.

Alan Reyes sat with his brother in the back of Las Americas, at a table topped with a tiny vase of pastel carnations. The room was half-full of customers, mostly men and a few dates, slicing heaping plates of grilled meat and shaking salt into Mexican beers.

He was not -- not -- taking the microphone, no matter what. "It scares me," said Reyes, fortyish and stocky, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

The brothers, partners in a Lorton construction firm, preferred watching the two young women hosting. The women -- one bubbly, one aloof, both in heels and denim -- sang when patrons did not.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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