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Some D.C. cabbies are NPR junkies. Others suffer through hours of colorless smooth jazz to pass time on their shifts. But Diamond Cab driver Les Souci cruises the streets to the strains of flamenco, folk, acid rock, and reggae-inspired melodies. The eclectic offerings have one thing in common: him.
“My stuff is so diverseit’s un-genre-finable,” says Souci, as he turns up the volume on his portable CD player and heads his station wagon north on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Souci flips his cruising light on. It’s about 9 on a Tuesday night, and we’re vigilantly spying potential fares as we listen to Souci’s 1998 album, Still Warrior. “Broken Glass,” the album’s opener, is his love song to Jamaica, and Souci tells me that he and his daughter, Maija, lived in a tent there for six months in the early ’80s. Maija, now 25, lives in Portland, Ore., and sings in her own band. “She sounds like a young Grace Slick,” he says.
Souci cuts across Observatory Circle to Wisconsin Avenue NW. What about the woman carrying two shopping bags? She’s just crossing the street. The guy in the suit? No; he’s headed for his car. The party of three 20-somethings? Who knows what the hell they’re doing.
It’s a tossup this evening as to which is harder: being a struggling D.C. independent artist or being a struggling D.C. cabdriver. “When it’s so nice out, it’s death to the taxi,” Souci schools me as we prowl the streets of Glover Park. “Early nights of the weekespecially during the summertimeit’s the pits.”
Souci says it costs him $12 an hour to hack, calculating in the costs of leasing, insurance, and gas. Since 8 p.m., we’ve been through Adams Morgan, Embassy Row, upper Wisconsin, and lower Georgetownscoring only one two-zone fare for all our efforts.
“This is the problem: You never know where to go,” Souci confides to me, as I suggest trying Dupont Circle again.
Souci began playing guitar at age 10. He grew up in Elgin, Ill., home of the Elgin Watch Company. After one semester of college, he moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., where he brags that he played every college in Allegheny County. He moved to Washington in the mid-’70s in an attempt to escape the music business.
But breaking up was hard to do. So Souci worked construction, waited tables, and eventually became a cabbieall while pursuing his real passions: playing guitar and writing music. Still Warriora follow-up to his first album, Awakeningfeatures Souci on guitar, Erald Briscoe on bass and piano, Julian Cambridge on drums and percussion, and Ron Holloway on saxophone.
He rarely performs around town. “D.C. is a jukebox town,” he says. “In D.C., you dare not to be different if you want to get paid.”
But Souci’s not afraid to mix music with his other interest: social activism. He performed his song “All the People” as part of the Webcast inaugural protests this past January. And he has even received a laudatory letter from Nelson Mandela. “I thought [the letter] was from Peoria. Instead, it was from Pretoria,” Souci laughs.
“‘It has always been our belief that art and culture has a pivotal role to play in bringing about peaceful change in nations which are in conflict,’” Souci says Mandela wrote to him after hearing the musician’s “Quiet War.” “We hope you keep up with your message of peace through song.”
About 9:45 p.m., a young blond woman waves her hand as she stands near the corner of 18th and Columbia Road NW. We pull over and pick her up.
Souci breaks the ice with a few jokes. She offers one of her own. And when we stop at the red light right before 16th and Columbia, Souci presses Play.
Within a few blocks, she’s made the connection. “You know who you sound like?” she says with enthusiasm.
“Leonard Cohen,” Souci replies nonchalantly.
Before dropping her off on Spring Road NW, Souci hands her his business card, which lists Web sites where she can listen to his songs. (Souci has been featured on music4free.com and mp3.com.) She asks a few questions about his music, vows to check his site for future performance dates, and gives him an extra dollar tip before shutting the door.
For two hours of work, Souci has collected $11.90 in fares and $3.10 in tipsa grand total of $15, which, according to his $12-per-hour calculation, puts him $9 in the red so far tonight.
But, more important to Souci, he’s earned one new fan. Perhaps he should call it an evening?
“Don’t quit before the miracle happens,” he reminds me. Elissa Silverman
Les Souci’s songs can be heard at lessouci.iuma.com and mp3.com/LesSouci.