Here, There are Rules for Singing Off-Key

A sly snapshot of life behind the counter in a Rio de Janeiro karaoke stand, from Brazil’s Piaui magazine:

Maria Vilani Maia Fu is a short, pleasant 66-year-old lady, with generous cheeks and short hair. She is also the proud owner of what is, in her judgment, the second-best karaoke stand at Rio’s Saint Christopher’s Fair. And that’s no small thing. This year-round fair, which celebrates the traditions of faraway Northeastern Brazil, takes place inside a huge 150,000 -square-meter pavilion in the North Zone of Rio. It has more than 20 other karaoke stands, as well as restaurants, arts and crafts and butcher shops. The crowds that visit the fair are greatly varied, ranging from young hipsters to Northeasterners longing for a little taste of home.

Mrs. Vilani’s main competitor is-according to her-the best place at the whole fair to go if you want to sing off-key, and the place looks almost refined in comparison to the karaoke stands that surround it. Isolated from the crowds that swarm the streets of the fair by glass walls covered in dark window film, the Bazar da Cantoria (or Singing Bazar) offers its clients the comfort of a powerful air conditioner. The ticket to get inside the stand costs 10 reais [$3].

“The crowd here is different from the one in my stand”, she says, comparing Bazar da Cantoria to her own stand, which is named “Já Disse” (or “I’ve Told You Already”). Mrs. Vilani says the name is a sort of strange homage: “My grandmother used to own a dog with an incredibly difficult name that nobody could ever remember. Whenever someone asked her what the dog’s name was, she would just say ‘I’ve told you already’. From then on I decided that if I ever owned a business, I would call it ‘I’ve Told You Already’”.

In contrast to the luxurious Bazar da Cantoria, there are no walls that separate Mrs. Vilani’s stand from the rest of the fair. People are free to come in and out of the stand, which is located in an area no bigger than a two-car garage, and is equipped with a karaoke machine, three plasma-screen TVs, four stereo speakers, and two refrigerators. “Sometimes passersby look in here and decide to stop for a quick song; the atmosphere here is more relaxed”, she concludes.

But the atmosphere here, is in reality, not all that relaxed. There are those who say that the stand’s name is a reflection of Vilani’s iron fist. Even though she appears to be a plump and innocent little old lady, Maria Vilani Maia Fu can be a tough woman. Her stand has strict rules, which are explained on a sign that Vilani wrote herself. Every new person that enters her stand is barraged with the question: “Did you read the rules? If you accept them, you may stay.” Then, she points to another sign where her prices are listed: in order to sing two consecutive songs, one must pay, in cash and in advance, the sum of 4 reais [$1]. On that same sign, one can read some of the stand’s rules and learn that cursing and sitting on someone’s lap are not tolerated here.

In order to keep things organized at I’ve Told You Already, Mrs. Vilani uses a notepad and a wireless microphone that hangs over her head. She uses the notepad to write down the order of the songs that her clients will sing, and to communicate additional new rules to them via brief notes.

Armed with her microphone, she announces every one of the performances: “Today Freddie Mercury couldn’t make it, so we are now going to hear ‘I want to break free’ sung by Edson and Natália”. If one of her rules is broken, she intervenes. When one of her patrons trips before going on stage and curses, microphone in hand, Mrs. Vilani gives him a scolding in front of the crowd. “If you wish to stay here, you must obey the rules. If you like the place, tell your friends; if you don’t, tell your enemies. Leave it to me, I’ll torture them!” The catch phrase, which regular patrons know well, brings laughter from the crowd.

Mrs. Vilani’s love affair with karaoke is long-standing. During the 1990s she worked as a lawyer in downtown Rio and was a regular patron of the karaoke stands in that neighborhood. On a certain evening in 1998, during a happy hour event at a karaoke stand, she met accountant José Carlos de Souza, another regular at karaoke stands.

Souza was still getting over a divorce and he went on stage to sing “Amigo é pra essas coisas” (or “Friends Are There for You”), a song written by Brazilian musician Aldir Blanc. Mrs. Vilani joined him on stage for a duet of the tune, singing the part of the song where a person consoles their friend after he was dumped. They felt an instant connection. Later in the evening, the pair went on stage again to sing “Endless Love”, a 1981 hit originally recorded as a duet between Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. Mrs. Vilani is proud of the fact that she could sing the song in perfect fluent English. “I took a language course in the US. My English is very good, and false modesty is a sin.”

But there were obstacles to their new-found love. The former lawyer was herself married to a Chinese engineer 25 years older than her – hence the last name Fu, which she keeps to this day –, with whom she had two children. She kept her relationship with Souza secret until the day in September of 2001 when planes high jacked by Al-Qaeda took down the World Trade Center towers. “It was only then that I realized how short life is”, she says.

At that point, she moved in with the accountant. Eight years later, when the couple was already retired, they found an empty spot at Saint Christopher’s fair. They decided they were not going to be simple karaoke-stand patrons anymore and opened their own business. Thus, I’ve Told You Already was born. In the stand, the former lawyer and her husband share the work load: she oversees the karaoke part, and he sells and serves drinks.

On one Friday night last June Souza was in the back of the room selling beer when a young patron came in asking about Mrs. Vilani. He wanted to give her a piece of paper containing the list of songs he wanted to sing, but he couldn’t find her – and, in fact, it had been a while since her voice was heard over the microphone that night.

“She’s in her dressing room”, said the husband, pointing to a small hidey-hole behind one of the refrigerators. Short after that, Mrs. Vilani appeared back in the stand, transformed and exuberant, boasting three feather boas and a feather headpiece tied to her hair by a huge silver butterfly.

The sexagenarian woman sang the verse “What good is sitting alone in your room?” as an opening to her musical number, where she sits, stands, and swirls around a chair, like Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. The neophyte patrons were in awe, and quickly grabbed their iPhones to record the performance. Souza, who is used to his diva, was smiling discreetly in one corner of the room.

Paula Scarpin Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard