Karaoke: From Cheesy Entertainment to Environmental Education Tool

Karaoke video explaining not to drink water from wells painted red as they contain high levels of arsenic (YouTube via RDI-Cambodia)

For this writer, karaoke has long been thought as an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed (and I am sure I am not alone in this). But the non-profit organization Resource Development International (RDI) Cambodia is showing that karaoke can be elevated from its "fromage" status, and can surprisingly be transformed into a powerful medium for raising awareness about local water safety issues, such as pesticide contamination, parasites and arsenic poisoning.

With their own recording and film studio, RDI-Cambodia has been cranking out educational videos for over 6 years and in effect, synthesizing a culturally appropriate approach to using popular entertainment to spread an urgent message. In particular, the karaoke videos have not only worked, they have been enormously popular. Why is this?According to RDI-Cambodia:

Karaoke as an activity in Cambodia bears little resemblance to the American style of karaoke. As opposed to the USA where karaoke is mainly a bar-room activity that enjoys only mild popularity overall, in Cambodia virtually everyone likes to participate. Entire families sing along in their homes. Karaoke is sung at large celebrations and parties, small restaurants, and even in outdoor parks. It also does NOT require an audience. While in the western world, karaoke tends to be a 'performance' activity, in many Asian cultures it is not. Also, every age group participates with equal enthusiasm.

Secondly, karaoke songs need not be hit songs to be popular in Khmer culture. The style of the song and the lyrical method is what makes particular songs enjoyable. [..]

While Americans might find an educational song to be "cheesy" or less than desirable, RDI has found that audiences are EAGER to sing our educational songs because of the very high quality in which they are written, played, and vocalized. Adults and children actually will pick up a microphone and begin singing brand new songs they have never heard because of the familiar way the songs are produced. In numerous field tests Cambodians are excited to sing along with no prompting. This is truly a culturally appropriate method of combining education with popular entertainment.

Karaoke really does work
In addition to water issues, RDI-Cambodia has also produced karaoke videos on protecting fish habitats and precautions against bird flu. RDI-Cambodia also gives this wonderful example of how their karaoke water education program has been already proven surprisingly effective:

When the RDI karaoke truck went on a field test with a volunteer group to check on water quality in a rural village, an interesting thing occurred. A crowd gathered around the truck. When the karaoke video CD was played, villagers clamored for the microphone. Instantly, children were singing along to the songs. While this may not seem to unusual, it must be noted that the karaoke songs were newly recorded RDI written songs about arsenic. The song had never been heard before, yet by the time the RDI team left that day, the informative songs were being sung by memory by various villagers. Furthermore, upon a return visit days later it was discovered that some villagers had actually already ACTED on the instructions in the song. Karaoke is without a doubt and effective way of communicating much more than just love songs. It can and does teach valuable and important information as well.

NPR (audio coverage) via WaterWired
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