Karaoke nights keep us connected despite Covid

New ways of communing emerge

| 03 Jan 2022 | 04:52

Sugar Loaf. Our group has been going strong, on Zoom and onstage, since the start of the pandemic, and you are welcome to lend your voice.

Almost 25 years ago, I fell in love with Lee Squires at the Sugar Loaf Inn. Little did I realize that, decades later, we would, as a married couple, sponsor weekly karaoke at the same exact place, now owned by our dear friends, the Campos family. For the better part of a decade, they have operated the business at 1396 Kings Highway as the Cancun Inn.

Our inspiration stems from a July 4, 2016, incident, when some drunken revelers taunted the Campos family. They told the restauranteurs, who had lived in the United States for four decades, to go back to Mexico. The bartender, brother Julio, dispatched the unruly patrons, who complained to the New York Post that they had been kicked out of a Mexican restaurant for supporting Donald Trump.

People of every political persuasion have always frequented the Cancun Inn without incident. But those who were expelled had crossed a line. Friends quickly organized a rally to stand behind the Campos and against hatred. More than 100 supporters gathered in their backyard on a July night in 2016 advocating for tolerance and virtue.

Fast-forward 18 months, and Lee and I proposed that the Inn host weekly karaoke starting at 9 p.m. every Friday. The Campos family agreed to try. Gradually singers joined, and we began to host a diverse array of music, from pop standards to Broadway show tunes to rap. Each singer respected the others’ choices, and, by March 2020, many looked forward to this weekly haven.

However, the pandemic forced many restaurants to close or begin serving only take-out customers. State regulations and common sense precluded indoor dining, let alone singing.

So those of us who yearned for song needed a venue. We chose to Zoom, and, for 14 months, through May 2021, a loyal band of crooners resorted to the medium of many boxes. Folks from as far away as Columbia County upstate, New York City, Palm Springs, Fla., and Philadelphia lent their talents and we devotedly sang between 9 and 11:30 every Friday night, bar none.

Zoom sometimes disappointed, but our spirits weekly soared as the boxes on the screen filled with our friends. The diverse selections made each evening distinctive and interesting. Singers were gently encouraged to share new material, and interest and participation continued to grow.

In May 2021, with Covid seemingly abating, we went back to our beloved Cancun Inn, albeit with caution. By then, the Campos family had suffered terrible losses. Julio, the quixotic bartender, died in February 2021 after being exposed to Covid by his mother’s caregiver. His mother had died about ten days earlier.

We could not get together to share our sadness. But our karaoke community rallied behind Israel, the magical proprietor and gregarious host, and his brother Mario, the extraordinarily versatile and talented chef. We all had longed for the restaurant to re-open and wanted to greet each other in person and let music ring.

An emotional reunion

Our return to in-person singing was deeply emotional. We shared grief at Julio’s loss and remembered his comic Elvis impersonations. We also recognized other losses in our community. We joyously share birthdays and anniversaries. Participation grew nearly every week.

Middletown’s Alexandra Haines, a professionally trained singer, added an extraordinary dimension to our weekly program, wooing audiences with her range and passion. Goshen’s David Patrick Wilson, known to some as “Superman,” brought tremendous energy with renditions of the Allman Brothers and Springsteen.

Israel Campos and his partner, Dana, shared their love songs, twinkling across the room at each other. The Streicherts, who live a few blocks from the restaurant, often performed stirring duets.

“We feel that it’s like our ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” said Lori, one of the singers. “Karaoke is always a great time and judgment-free.”

Kim Thomas from Greenwood Lake echoed those feelings. “It’s uplifting for me,” she said. “I never had the nerve to engage in karaoke because I would starve if I had to sing for a meal. But, instead of being judged based on singing talent, I was greatly encouraged, appreciated, welcomed, and supported. Attending karaoke with all these great individuals gave me courage and confidence. I actually feel part of it with no reservations.”

Karaoke at the Cancun Inn is very structured and organized. During each round, every singer performs one song. We try to complete three rounds each night.

The songs include world music, songs in French and Spanish, blues, ballads, and spirituals. All people of good will are welcome.

To end each Friday night, those assembled join hands to folk singer Joe Jencks’ beautiful ballad “Lady of the Harbor,” a tribute to the immigrants who have built our great country and to our national commitment to freedom and liberty.

You don’t have to be lonely

For all of us, karaoke is a way both to combat loneliness and to express the feeling that there can never be too much music or art or beauty. As we each have dealt with the persisting distress and disruption, Cancun Inn regulars anticipate Friday night with gusto. The connections, even on Zoom, have only brightened the last nearly two years.

At the same time, newcomers who want to bring their voices to the floor are encouraged and welcomed. Dancing adds life to the party. As sponsors, Lee and I established one rule from the beginning: the weekly songfest is not a competition. We award no prizes. Each person is encouraged to express him/her/themselves, and we each appreciate every song. That spirit has bound together the ever-expanding group.

As the pandemic has persisted, Lee has focused on ensuring our collective safety, cleaning the mic between singers (unless you follow someone you kiss, as she explains). We have recently started wearing masks as we sing. Through it all, the music continues...

So, if you are at the Cancun Inn on a Friday night about 8 p.m. and I ask you if you have a song, you will now be prepared and understand why! And, if you have not yet joined us, please feel free to come and make your voice heard.