When Roland Williams sings karaoke, everyone around him starts grinning involuntarily. It happened in 2009, the year he was crowned
grand champion, and it happened again last week when he scooped the top prize of $1000 on Maori Television's new singing show,
Whereas Homai Te Pakipaki " which ended its long and often glorious run last year " welcomed one and all to Maori Television's studios every Friday night, Sidewalk Karaoke takes the songbook to the streets. The mobile set pops up outside shopping centres or markets and offers passers-by the chance to sing their way to fortune.
Roland pitched up on his way home from work after he was tipped off by a text from his wife's cousin. His first song, a soulful version of Luther Vandross' late-career hit Dance With My Father, stopped people in their tracks. A crowd gathered, and grew. In the background of some shots, you could see the show's genial host Te Hamua Nikora with his eyes closed, singing along.
For $100 cash-in-hand, all singers need to do is score more than 70 on the show's app, which works much like PlayStation's SingStar technology. Roland made it look easy, crooning his way to a score of 86. He didn't think twice when offered the double-or-nothing proposition of progressing to the next round.
To double their money, singers need to score over 80, performing a song of the host's choosing. Roland tackled Stevie Wonder's Superstition as if he'd sung it at 100 karaoke nights before, but only narrowly snuck in with a score of 81.
"I've got five kids," he told Nikora, "so the logical thing would be to go for the $1000." To win the top prize, contestants must find a duet partner in the crowd and again score above 80. Roland made a beeline for his wife's cousin, who held up her end of Maroon 5's All I Need to see them triumph with another 81. As the credits rolled, Roland and his wife bashfully debated how to split the winnings.
While not as loose and freewheeling as its predecessor, Sidewalk Karaoke retains Homai Te Pakipaki's trademark warmth and generosity. Everyone's encouraged to give it a go, and there's no shaming of bad singers.
"Nice try," Nikora offered after some sporting attempts at Bob Marley fell short, "but not everyone can be winners in this game, otherwise we'd run out of money."
The show's fun, simple format has a lot going for it, but its biggest strength could be the simple fact that it clocks in at a brisk half-hour in a world of unwieldy, multi-night reality monstrosities. It forgoes all the heartstring-tugging backstories and instead just asks contestants: "What are you doing here?"
"I was taking my family out for a feed and I thought, ooh, I could do with that 100 bucks," said Natasha, who belted out a serviceable version of The Eagles' Take It Easy to score 75 and get her $100.
"Oh my gosh," she cried, "I never win anything!"
Roland was an outlier; a genuinely good singer who made the show look easy. He probably bent the rules a bit by choosing someone he already knew for the duet in the final round. Natasha was the quintessential Sidewalk Karaoke contestant - the kind of everyday hero that is the heart of the show. Like Roland, she didn't think twice when offered the chance to double her money.
"I'm gonna keep the $100, sorry," she said before disappearing into the night. "My son wants me to buy him a feed."