The Central American nation of Belize is known for its Mayan ruins, outstanding diving, and spectacular resorts. But it is also a hotbed of karaoke. Like many places around the world, Belize considers karaoke so popular that most bars and restaurants have at least one karaoke night a week. But in Belize, karaoke is also a smash hit on the tube.
On Tuesday nights, TV sets across the nation are tuned in to the most popular show in the country: Karaoke Television, otherwise known as KTV.
Belize's population is just over 270,000, but it is a diverse blend of mestizo (mixed Maya and European), African, Afro-European (Creole), Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna), European, Indian, and Chinese.
One of the things that makes Karaoke Television work is the size of Belize and its small-town connections. When viewers tune in to KTV, they have a good chance of recognizing at least one of the contestants. And when you add the nation's ethnic diversity and local culture to the mix, the result is something quite unique.
"If you have never been to karaoke in Belize, you have no idea how popular it is," past KTV champion Rohjani Perriott explains. "Belizeans love to watch people do things they would never have the guts to do themselves. The more you put on, the more they like you."
Karaoke Television debuted in February 2001, nearly a year and a half before shows like American Idol. KTV is similar to Idol in that people sing before a panel of judges, and they either move on to the next round or get the big boot. They can also win prizes like cash and trips.
The show is televised live each week from the patio of the Bliss Centre for Performing Arts in Belize City. It is so popular that people have been known to line up for up to three hours to get a seat in the studio audience, this in a country where queuing up for anything is rare.
For contestants, the fame can be instant. Perriott was shocked by the sudden celebrity she experienced after appearing on KTV.
"It was unreal. TV is such a personal medium. You're in people's homes and they feel like they know you," she says. "People would come up to me on the bus and on the street yelling 'Karaoke queen! Karaoke queen!' It really threw me."
KTV is produced by Great Belize Television (Channel 5). General manager Stewart Krohn was also surprised by the show's popularity. He chalks it up to what he calls the water-cooler factor.
"Everyone has something to say about the previous night's performance. It [the show's success] was quite amazing. It just took the country by storm." Krohn knew he had a hit when people began calling the station to complain about bad reception and plead for them to fix it before karaoke time.
As the popularity of the show grew, the performances got more creative. Participants didn't simply imitate other artists; they took ownership of songs, delivering them in their own style. Audiences responded.
Even KTV's host, William Neal, was surprised by how popular the show became. "At all levels of society, KTV became the number one topic that galvanized families, friends, and a nation," he says.
KTV is a mirror of Belize. You might see someone of Creole descent belt out a Jim Reeves standard, and the next contestant might be a Mennonite who sings Bon Jovi.
"What really helped us was the diversity that you have in a given show," Krohn says. "A Mennonite from Spanish Lookout, an East Indian from Toledo, a Hispanic from Corozal, a Garifuna from Dangriga, and a Creole from Belize City.
"The show, at a deeper level, really reinforced the national unity of the country at a time when there are other factors that kind of pull the country apart. It's a very unifying experience."
But sometimes it's just the opposite. There have been incidents where audience members or contestants disagreed with the judges' decisions-and weren't shy about expressing their feelings.
Critics belittle karaoke as throwaway entertainment, not culture. But Neal, who is also the director for the Institute of Creative Arts, doesn't think so. "Many people may say that it affects Belizean culture in a negative way, but I disagree, because culture is fluid and constantly changing." Neal says that although karaoke isn't culturally relevant, it does help give people a chance to live out their dreams of becoming performers. "A lot of Belizean musicians, to my mind, are more disappointed that their songs are not available on karaoke because that would be the greatest form of flattery." And these days, more and more songs by popular Belizean artists are being made available as karaoke tracks.
This year's champion of KTV, 18-year-old Angelo Fabro, was a hit from his first appearance. He hammed it up, and the audience loved it. Fabro, who comes from a small town called Corozal near the Mexican border, dazzled the audience with Elvis and Ricky Martin tunes complete with costumes.
"I really love the way people have reacted to me," he told Channel 5 before he won the big prize. "I didn't think I would be the kind of person who would be the centre of attention, so it's a very good feeling."
Fabro has become a star, taking his act on the road. And when he goes back home, everyone calls him Elvis.
Neal tells how, at a high-school pageant, more than 500 people screamed and cheered when Fabro entered the room, "Like he was a genuine pop star, and the same thing happened when I walked on-stage. It was crazy.
"Karaoke may not be high art as defined by artistic snobs," Neal adds, "but it is fun, popular, and here to stay."
ACCESS: Belize lies south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea. American Airlines, Continental, and US Air service Belize City. Flying on American means changing planes in Miami. Continental is a little better, but from Vancouver there is a change of planes in both Seattle and Houston. The return flight is easier, as there is a direct flight from Houston. Belize City is well connected to other Central American capitals by air and bus. There is also bus service from Cancíƒ ºn and Playa del Carmen, Mexico. For more information on Karaoke Television, see Channel 5's Web site (new.channel5belize.com/).