Mateo Crawford stepped up to the microphone. Music quickly started to play and the familiar tune snapped the audience back to 1999.
“My doll, my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa, you’re my reason for reason, the step in my groove!” Crawford belted out, lyrics from “Smooth” by Santana.
Crawford stood in front of a bright screen Monday inside Santa Rosa’s Whiskey Tip and faced the crowd. He closed his eyes and swayed slowly with the music as if he were alone in the room.
“It’s a passion, it’s freedom, it’s scary,” said Crawford, 28, following his performance. “People know your name, they clap for you — it’s my happy place.”
He’s been part of the local karaoke community for seven years. He’s a group of “regulars” who sing every week at various Sonoma County bars or restaurants, whether they’re amateur vocalists or otherwise.
Whether you have a bombastic voice like Whitney Houston or a scratchy voice that falls flat when in the spotlight, the karaoke community evens the playing field, Crawford said.
“It’s better than trivia,” he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter if you’re great at it or not — people always clap for you. I love feeling that rush you get after singing a song.”
Singers sat at the bar inside Whiskey Tip, smiling wide and clapping as they awaited their turn. One guy brought a guitar-shaped balloon as a prop to use while he sang. A few newcomers braved their way to the front and sang karaoke for the first time.
Karoke originated in Japan in the 1970s. The first karaoke machine, used as a form of entertainment in which people sing along to a prerecorded track and read lyrics off a video screen, was created by musician Daisuke Inoue in Kobe, Japan. The Japanese word “karaoke” translates to “empty orchestra.”
When Shannon Jones, 40, started hosting and DJing during karaoke nights in 2017 across Sonoma County, she could focus on something other than her struggles—an abusive relationship and the death of her younger brother.
“Karaoke saved my life,” said Jones, who lives in Windsor. “I’m good at it. I wasn’t good at anything then, you know, everything I did was wrong. Knowing that I’m actually good at something feels amazing. No one can take that from me.”
A sticker on the back of her car is shaped like a heartbeat with a microphone in the center.
“Music is life,” she said. “It’s therapy.”
On Wednesdays, Whiskey Tip attracts up to 40 people eager to sing a few tunes, Jones said. On Monday, some singers waited two hours for a turn.
“The karaoke list fills up fast,” Crawford said. “Eat 20-30 minutes before it starts.”
Santa Rosa resident Nick Lasalle wore a long black leather jacket and sang Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” with ease. He considers himself more of a backup vocalist, but he took the microphone and soaked up the limelight that night.
Lasalle, 31, discovered the community of singers seven years ago. Before then, he considered himself a bit of a recluse, he said.
“It changed my life, it really brought me out of my shell,” said Lasalle, a guitarist for 20 years. “I’ve made lifelong friends here.”
Crawford, who works as a mail carrier at a local post office, is a drama kid at heart. He was particularly drawn to the drama classes he attended at Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa. His favorite karaoke song is “Greased Lightnin,’” from the 1971 musical “Grease. He performs it often.
He can’t get enough of the hobby, he said, and is eager to find a karaoke bar wherever he travels.
“It doesn’t matter who you are — we’ve had millionaires, homeless people, and professional and amateur singers in here,” Jones said. “Singing and music bonds us.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at email@example.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.