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Every night of the week is Mexican karaoke night at the joint on 51st Avenue north of Camelback Road, and Thursdays the place is packed. Tonight, Avilés is singing a sappy ballad, but the crowd still seems to dig it. He's doing his best with his rich tenor, although he stumbles with the lyrics. "It's hard. Sometimes the words jump you," he says, referring to the onscreen Spanish text. "Sometimes the words are slow, sometimes fast. Maybe I'm the problem!" he says, laughing.
Kahlua's other room is just as packed, and the crowd dances feverishly to a Spanish version of "Jailhouse Rock." The DJ soon gives way to a Ramones look-alike band that's all over the map, going from cumbias to heavy rock. When the DJ comes back on, he spins a set of Maná, the famous rock-en-español act, and the dancers gyrate like American rockers. They just do it a lot sexier.
Back in the karaoke room, the announcer is offering three free haircuts for the worst singer of the night. "Bald guys don't qualify!" he says, referring to a couple of tough-looking Chicanos in the crowd.
"The people that come here are from all over," says Margie Cordova, a 25-year-old legal assistant from Guadalajara. "In Mexico there are class separations, and at Kahlua's there are all different types of cultures. We're all Mexican but we all like different stuff. Some like rock en español, some like banda," she says, referring to the brass-heavy, oompah music. Others in the diverse crowd appear to be Shakira wanna-bes. There's even an occasional transvestite singer. But even the most unpolished amateur singer, it seems, has a basic competence that would be hard to find in a karaoke bar not in the barrio. Mexicans just know how to sing.
And it's the ranchera standards -- Mexico's country music -- that seem to transport everyone. Any Vicente Fernández tune is sure to get the crowd going. (Think Frank Sinatra belting out Willie Nelson songs, and you get some idea.)
When one loose hombre starts belting out a Fernández standard, he really plays it up, asking the crowd for its opinion, shouting between verses, "¿Que dice el publico?" For just a moment, he becomes the popular iconic movie star and singer whose music transcends all Mexican cultural differences.
"When you get that many people together . . . you feel a bond. It brings people together," says Cordova's friend, Kim Mendola, a 22-year-old ASU student and gringa. She studied in Guadalajara, she says, explaining her affinity for Mexican culture and knowledge of the music. "Young Mexicans are singing songs they learned as kids. The songs are classic. They're songs that their parents sang. Maybe even their grandparents," says Mendola.
"We sing at every single party," her friend Cordova agrees. "We start with CDs and end up with guitars. If we don't have a guitar, then we bang on the pots and pans. That's part of the culture. Mexicans are very musical. I don't care about singing in public when I'm feeling good, maybe after two or three beers," she says with a laugh, as if to mean maybe a few more.
The two women, meanwhile, seem to have made an impression on the karaoke host, who points them out and shouts about how "fresa" they are.
"Fresa is snob' in Spanish," Cordova says, not appearing too put out by the insult. "We fooled with the DJ, so maybe he might be mad."
The two say they get a lot of attention at the Thursday night singathons. "All of our friends come here every week," says Mendola. "It's part of the entertainment when they see me here," she says, referring to her fair skin. "But I like it. It's a more relaxed environment. It's not Scottsdale. You don't have to put on the Ritz."
Luis Avilés, the superstar hopeful, gets starry-eyed when he's asked about his regular Thursday night habit. "I don't know, maybe it's possible I have a career in singing," he says. His friends sometimes tease him, but tonight they're mostly supportive. "They want me to sing rancheras, like this one," he says, pointing to the loudspeaker overhead. He adds his own voice to the passionate song, and it's enough to turn heads. "Rancheras are easier for me," he says. "They're easier to get into."