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Singing Their Praise


Karaoke club goer Peter Kim serenades his girlfriend, Laura Davis, with "It Had to Be You," the Harry Connick Jr. version.

There's no crowded bar full of amateur back-up singers, no applause. Best of all, there are no hecklers. The Northridge couple has rented a private room in the nightclub.

When karaoke, which means empty orchestra, originated nearly 15 years ago, the action was onstage. Tone-deaf extroverts, supplied with recorded background music and sometimes imbibed courage, took to the microphones. The shy merely listened.

Now, thanks to Korean karaoke, no fan has to hear strangers croon off-key, and those with stage fright get their chance. Norae bang (music room) clubs in the crowded strip malls that line the streets surrounding Wilshire and Western in Koreatown provide patrons with private chambers equipped with TVs, mikes and remote controls to program songs and laser-disc systems that pump out the music and MTV-style videos.

Many norae bangs don't serve liquor. Families bring their children to sing in the afternoons while small clusters of friends and business associates gather in the early evenings. On weekends, it's not uncommon to find a wedding party at one of the establishments and in the early morning hours, after the bars have closed, the norae bangs are still buzzing.

Tucked away in the Goldwell Plaza on West Eighth Street, Que Gori is bustling with twentysomethings who poured in for some after-hours entertainment on a recent evening. Manager Alexander Lim says the first-come-first-served motto often leaves people waiting since most tend to sing for at least two hours. During the day, he adds, rooms are easy to come by.

There are days when Lim wishes he had a liquor license, but most of his patrons wander in when the clubs close or head here Sunday after church. On weekdays, he says, many housewives come to his 19-room club to practice their singing.

"These people want to be stars," Lim says. "When they're here they can turn that dream into a reality."

Mike Rim, owner of the Rosen-Keller Music Studio, sings for friends visiting from South Korea on a Friday night at his posh club, which attracts an upscale business crowd. With its 29 private rooms and a stage, Rosen-Keller is the largest norae bang in Koreatown.

Sitting around a coffee table in a large music room, the guests dine on udon noodles and sauteed fish and sip Korean ale. They thumb through the song books. Rim moves to the center of the room to lead friends in a rendition of "Seoul Seoul Seoul."

Though karaoke originated in Japan, it quickly became a hit in South Korea. Jim Choi of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, said the idea for norae bangs in Koreatown came from their popularity in South Korea.

According to the Korean Directory Service of California, there are 40 norae bangs throughout Los Angeles County. Choi says there are about 20 in Koreatown. In 1993 there were twice as many, he says, but competition was so fierce, owners dropped prices and many clubs closed. The ones that survived are thriving businesses. For an average of about $10 an hour, patrons can rent a small music room, which comfortably seats five people. Larger rooms are available for about $25 per hour.

The cost at each norae bang is contingent on the amenities. At Debut, patrons pay $20 per hour for a small room and $40 for large quarters. The club features almost 9,000 American songs and about 3,000 Japanese and Korean songs. Most clubs have about 6,000 songs. In addition, the club offers food and liquor, an added benefit in his business, owner James Lee says.

Centered in a strip mall on West Sixth Street, Debut has techno finesse. The look of its 20 rooms is Ikea showroom with custom-designed white leather couches and multicolor throw pillows. The televisions have an option that divides the screen into 50 small screens and each room comes equipped with electric bongo drums. The club also offers a $3 videotaping service for those who want to immortalize their singing sessions.

While most of the norae bangs in Koreatown cater to a Korean clientele, Debut has attracted a mixed contingent of young, hip types who love to sing. Lee says the artist formerly known as Prince has dropped by the club.

After a night on the town, veteran karaoke singer George Yu recently showed up at Debut with some friends for what turned out to be a three-hour session.

As the three-ring binder filled with songs circles the room Yu passes it along, a little microphone shy. Sisters Wendi and Sherri Franson tackle "I've Never Been to Me," a '70s hit by Charlene and Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and are a little stumped by the unfamiliar lyrics, so they try something more familiar.

Belting out "American Pie," their voices resonate on key, a clear sign that they don't need to be in a private room.

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