Daisuke Inoue

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The terms of the deal are almost complete, and the negotiating teams decide to go out on the town to continue their discussion in more relaxed surroundings. A few drinks later, the lights go low and somebody flicks a button. Suddenly, images of a dreamlike California are drifting across a screen, a low-key musical accompaniment is floating through the room and the company chairman, heaving with emotion, is crooning into a microphone: You ain't nothin' but a hound dog... It's time to praise (and occasionally curse) the muse of a million cocktail lounges, the genius who gave voice to the common man in the 20th century, Daisuke Inoue. Daisuke who? The laid-back sometime drummer who currently operates out of a second-floor walk-up in the suburbs of Osaka hardly seems to belong in the company of those Asians who turned whole continents on their heads with their ideas and visions and resolve. Yet this Eastern Walter Mitty has, in his unobtrusive way, helped to liberate legions of the once unvoiced: as much as Mao Zedong or Mohandas Gandhi changed Asian days, Inoue transformed its nights. He helped invent karaoke, creating a tradition that, in 30 years, has become as universally known as pizza or disco. Inoue's accomplishment also reflects neatly how Asia's position changed over the course of the century now ending. As the 1900s began and Japan defeated Russia in the war of 1904-05, it seemed that Asian powers were, for almost the first time, getting the better of Western ones. By the time the century ended Japan, though suffering, was still conquering the globe in all kinds of new ways, often private, thanks to its genius for dreaming up small machines that made convenience fun and fun convenient: Sony's Walkman, the video games of Nintendo and Sega, Bandai's Tamagotchi. Using technology to empower the little guy--suddenly anyone could listen to his own music in a crowded train, fax his handwriting across the globe or perform his own rendition of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus--has been the paradoxical contribution of a culture that outsiders too often associate with businesslike conformity. Small wonder that the word karaoke began to seem as much a part of the global lexicon as--well, car and okay. Inoue's own story is as inspiring to every anonymous worker as those of Eiji Toyoda or Akio Morita: after all, the man who helped make us all Sinatras cannot read a note of music, plays the keyboards only ineptly, he says, and has made next to nothing from his invention. Sitting in his office in a backstreet apartment block, the pony-tailed maverick cheerfully offers, After I make something, I always become the worst at it. I'm good at nurturing and training others, but my students always end up surpassing me and making more than I do. Inoue didn't even try karaoke singing himself until earlier this year--on his 59th birthday. Born in Osaka in 1940, he grew up in the same area where he now works, Nishinomiya, named in honor of an emperor's residence. At Osaka Technical High School he took up the drums because, he says, all you have to do is hit them. Before long he was making more money than anyone else in the school by thumping away in a Hawaiian band that played the old dance-halls left behind by American G.I.s. Though Inoue worked briefly at a trading company upon graduation, he quickly realized it was not the ideal place for a man who wore butterflies on his shirts and custom-made 10-cm cuffs that flashed his name in Roman letters. Conspicuously easygoing, with an infectious smile--the main item on his desk is a large tin in the shape of a Budweiser beer can--Inoue is a stalwart of the local Lions' Club as well as the local nightclub scene. Because he was so incompetent at music, he says, his early bandmates urged him to take over the business side of their company. That he did by borrowing money from his father, who ran a pancake stall behind a train station. By 1970, he and six colleagues were playing the fancy dives of nearby Kobe, accompanying middle-aged businessmen who wanted to sing traditional Japanese country and even military songs. His friends, Inoue says, could all read music and so pick up the latest tunes; he had to rely on memory and play by following the lips of the singer as they moved. Out of 108 club musicians in Kobe, he volunteers, I was the worst! And the clients in my club were the worst singers! Which was funny, because the name of the club--'Baron'--was so high. One client, the president of a small steel company, grew especially devoted to Inoue's slow, follow-along style, which showed off the executive's out-of-time warblings to perfection. When he asked Inoue to play for him on an overnight trip to a hot springs resort, the drummer--unable to leave his job -- obliged by providing him with a tape of his accompaniment. The boss delivered an emotional rendition of Frank Nagai's Leaving Haneda Airport on a 7:50 Flight, Inoue collected his money in absentia and karaoke (a term long used in the industry for house musicians--it literally means empty orchestra) was born. If company presidents could sing along to taped accompaniment, Inoue thought, why not regular guys at more modest drinking-places equipped only with a jukebox? He and his pals had 11 home-made boxes constructed, fitted them out with specially made tapes and amplifiers and began leasing the machines to bars in Kobe in 1971. Soon customers were wailing My Way in Osaka and Tokyo as well. I think karaoke has helped to transform the Japanese people, Inoue says in a rare moment of earnestness. They're said to be shy and poor at expressing themselves in public. But give a guy a microphone, and the same man who has trouble getting out a wedding speech never wants to stop! Inoue made almost no money out of his discovery--which was soon picked up by larger companies--and the karaoke firm he passed on to his younger brother recently went bust. The only patent he owned, briefly, was for plastic-covered songbooks, and the only karaoke-related profits he earns today come from a potion he markets to repel the cockroaches and rats that are a karaoke box's main enemy. Until a Singapore-based all-karaoke TV channel discovered him in 1996, the man who rescued mute, inglorious Presleys and unrecognized Madonnas was hardly known even in his hometown. Even now, on the wall calendar that hangs by his door, there are only eight appointments listed for the whole month. I am its natural parent, he confesses, but, having given birth to karaoke, I abandoned it. The premise of sing-along music has always been egalitarian: if the boss can make like Paul McCartney, so can I. In the often hierarchical cultures of East Asia, therefore, it has served as instrument of homemade democracy, a popular ice-breaker and even a method for picking up foreign languages. And in a world of ever more customized entertainments--the home video or the home page--karaoke is a kind of fantasy chamber for the circumscribed. It also seems apt that this quintessentially Japanese product, made by a man strolling to the beat of his own private drum-kit, has touched a chord worldwide. Signs for karaoke nights now appear outside mom-and-pop stalls in Third World villages and on the glittery billboard of the Hollywood Park Casino in California. Global icons practice it in films like My Best Friend's Wedding, and steelworkers howl away in English towns, where carry-okie sounds like a cousin of cash 'n' carry. Religious figures have been heard to say that karaoke is as essential to the soul as tai chi, and 53 million Japanese alone have inflicted their voices on the world. Even in a city like Phnom Penh you can sing everything from O Sole Mio to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Inoue, meanwhile, remains an Everyman with a smile, unperturbed about lost riches and excited about his latest venture. My dream before I die, he says, flourishing a business card on which colored dogs cavort, is to train Japanese pet-owners to take better care of their pets. To offer a school for cradle-to-grave training of cats and dogs. Having helped to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony), he should find training four-legged creatures and their friends as easy as just whistling. Pico Iyer, a longtime contributor to TIME, is the author of Video Night in Kathmandu