Minnesota Mix: Ray Evangelista's 'enhanced karaoke' goes down easy

Ray Evangelista
Ray Evangelista performs at Hunan Garden in St. Paul, Minn., on January 19, 2012. He's been playing at the capital city Chinese restaurant every week for over two decades.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

St. Paul's Hunan Garden is home to one of the capital city's longest-running musical acts. Ray Evangelista has been belting out cover songs at this Chinese restaurant for more than two decades.

The Filipino-American musician likes to call his act "enhanced karaoke," with sets shaped almost entirely by audience requests. His renditions of Jimmy Buffet and Michael Jackson classics go down about as easily as Hunan's legendary Flaming Volcanoes -- punchbowls of brandy, rum, and fire.

Evangelista can play over 600 songs from memory -- everything from "Green Onions" to "Lady Marmalade." And he seems to be as familiar with his audience as he is with the chords to "Hotel California."

"The moment I see their face, I know already what they want to hear," Evangelista said.

Out in the audience, Jack Schuster loves every minute of it.

"Our favorite is 'Hotel California,' which we requested. There's never been a song that we requested that he don't know," said Schuster. "He plays rap, if you like that now, which we're beyond that. But, you know, the Eagles and Santana and some of the really good old groups. He does it and he does it perfect."

Evangelista, 54, grew up in the Philippines. He started performing when he was 7 years old. At 10, he won an American Idol-like competition in Manila. And by 15, he was performing all over Asia as part of a USO tour.

Bobby "Buttermilk" Nabors
Ray Evangelista (right) watches as Bobby "Buttermilk" Nabors plays harmonica on stage at Hunan Garden in St. Paul, Minn. "I used to eat buttermilk and cornbread when I was little as a kid. When I play the harmonica, I gotta have a name that's really close to me. That's Bobby 'Buttermilk' Nabors. "
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"We played all kinds of music," Evangelista recalled. "People love 'Wipeout,' 'In A Gadda Da Vida.' When we played in Vietnam, one of their favorite songs is 'We Gotta Get out of the This Place' by The Animals. When they hear that song, they say, 'Oh my God. Yes. I gotta get out of here.'

A gig in Minnetonka brought Evangelista and his band mates to the U.S. in 1978. A show in Rochester taught them just how attached Americans can be to their musical preferences.

"They said. 'Hey guys, play some Johnny Nash,'" said Evangelista. "The keyboard player thought, 'Oh, Johnny Cash.' So what we did is we played Johnny Cash. And then all of a sudden, they all left and the manager said, 'Guys, here's the money.' I said, 'We're getting paid already?' And he said, 'No. We're paying you your gas money and you can go home.'"

The lesson: Bar patrons typically prefer songs they already know.

For years, Evangelista was strictly a one-man band. Then he noticed Eddie Sanders, one of the regulars, tapping his fingers to the beat against the side of the bar.

"I said, 'Come on, Eddie. Come play the conga,'" said Evangelista.

Hunan Garden
Ray Evangelista started performing in the Philippines when he was 7 years old. His mother was a harmonica player and his father was a professional dancer. Here, Evangelista entertains bar patrons at Hunan Garden in St. Paul, Minn., on January 19, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"And I kept saying, 'Aw, Ray, I don't wanna come up there. I'm too nervous,' Sanders admitted. "I didn't want to get people to laugh at me."

Eventually Sanders got up the courage to join Evangelista on stage. On a recent night they reprised a little Santana.

And Sanders isn't alone in the pick-up band. Restaurant patron Bobby Nabors adds some harmonica, too.

"I remember my first harmonica, from a Cracker Jack box," Nabors said. "And every time I would hear one, my ears would just perk up."

Still, he never imagined playing the harmonica in public.

"I always thought I could play it, but not play it and enjoy it with other people," Nabors said. "Anybody can do it at home, make music that makes the cat run under the table. Been there, done that. So it's like a dream to be able to play one live."

Now, Evangelista's Hunan Garden gigs end with open jam sessions. And it's become nearly impossible to pull Eddie Sanders from the drums.

"As time goes on, I get better and better and better," said Sanders. "Ray ain't gonna criticize you. He just like for you to be here playing with him."

In the spring, Evangelista will be inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. He says it's one of his biggest honors -- along with letting others in on his life's passion.

"I love music," he said. "I'm gonna go all the way until I die."