It’s 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night on U Street, and the bars and dance clubs are beginning to disgorge wobbly carousers with unbuttoned collars and wrinkled party dresses. The scene is a feeding frenzy for downtown cabbies, who jostle for position along the sidewalks to pull in the next clique of bar-hoppers. The drivers yell at each other, lay on their horns, and flout traffic rules—all in pursuit of the next fare.
But in the midst of the fierce competition rides Nigerian-born Olatunde Babayale, a cabbie who seems oblivious to the rat race of the hack. As Babayale cruises the streets, he moves blissfully above it all, listening to music, drumming on his dashboard, and smiling. That’s because Babayale, consulting firm owner by day and cabbie by Saturday night, is out not so much to snag every last fare as to savor every last note of music on his favorite radio program: WHUR (96.3 FM)’s Caribbean Experience.
Consulting firm honchos in D.C. taxicabs are a dime a dozen, but rarely do you find them behind the wheel. “In this city, things can get to you,” explains Babayale, the general manager of Dent Inc., a Landover-based financial management consulting firm. “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to keep yourself pumped up.”
For Babayale, staying pumped up means ditching the white-collar world and hitting downtown every Saturday night in a beat-up gray cab that wouldn’t be worth its weight in scrap if not for its customized sound system. While Babayale enjoys off-hours driving, the charms of nighttime Washington, a little pocket change, and meeting new people, he would be happy cruising the Beltway at rush hour as long he could get down to the music.
“Back in the 1970s, back in Nigeria, that’s when I actually got into reggae,” says Babayale. “Back then, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they were big.” Babayale brought his passion for the reggae pulse to Washington when he moved from Lagos in 1980. He majored in political science and international relations at Howard and soon afterward settled down in Prince George’s County, where he now lives with his wife and two kids. He set up his consultancy six years ago, and has driven Seasons Cab No. 71 for four years—and since the debut of Caribbean Experience, his dial has never moved off 96.3 FM.
Saturday night, downtown is as far from Lagos (and Landover) as Buffalo Springfield is from “Buffalo Soldier.” But Babayale is nonetheless in his element. By 12:30, 30 minutes into Caribbean Experience, he is rolling his shoulders and drumming on the dashboard as his mellifluous voice sings along to nearly every word of every song.
“Now, you tell me,” he says. “Listen to the music. You wanna tell me you can’t dance to this all night! And for free!” The song changes, but Babayale doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh, yes! This one is called ‘Funk Me Up With That Music.’ I love it!”
Between dances, Babayale passes the wee hours repeating a loop through the District’s party scene: past the downtown bars, up Connecticut Avenue to Columbia Road, down 16th Street, and then back over to the 17th Street strip, all the while spouting a combination of cabbie wisdom and reggae tutorial in his cavernous West African accent. “One of the things I have discovered is that people are out there because they want to have a good time. They have to unwind. There’s nothing wrong with the Christian channels, but who am I to impose my own beliefs on other people?” he says.
Instead, Babayale force-feeds his own brand of musical evangelism. At a red light at Connecticut and M, he pulls up next to a jeep full of beer-swilling blondes. “Hello ladies!” he calls. “Listen to the music!” A block up, he looks out at two men in a red convertible. “Turn on 96.3 FM! You won’t regret it!” he shouts.
Like any good missionary, Babayale is also quick to pounce on unbelievers. “Look at that cabdriver over there!” he exclaims. “You see how bored he is? Now, how can you expect to make other people happy when you are bored? How can you expect to make money when you are like, ‘I don’t want out be here, but I have to?’” Perhaps the forlorn cabbie should fire up some Marley, don some sunsplash apparel, and twist with the beat—a strategy that last Saturday netted Babayale $135 in three hours.
“I’m enjoying the music, and dancing to the music, and at the same time I’m making money,” Babayale exclaims, repeating his Regis Philbinlike mantra: “I love it!”
Babayale credits reggae radio host John Blake for his good fortunes on the street. “Oh, he makes money for me!” says Babayale. “I wonder if he knows I’m his No. 1 fan?” he asks.
The only bummer for Babayale is that downtown bar-hoppers don’t quite share his zeal for reggae (of course, Babayale would look like a zealot in downtown Kingston). From Eurotrash chain-smokers desensitized by hours of techno sameness to Zeppelin-loving Hill interns (“They travel in packs,” says Babayale. “I love picking them up!”) heading for that kegger, riders may enjoy the music, but no one can keep up with the driver’s encyclopedic reggae banter.
“Hello, Seth,” he says, introducing himself to a rider. “And by the way, this is soca music. This is Baron Lee! How do you like it?”
“Uh, cool,” says Seth.
Blurting out the lyrics like a Baron Lee groupie, Babayale repeats the question: “You like this?”
“Yeah,” says Seth. “Fine.”
“It’s high life. It gets to you, the music. It gets you moving!” says Babayale.
“Uh-huh.” says Seth.
“In Trinidad, they have a lot of Indians over there. So they do Calypso Indian-style!” says Babayale, steamrolling.
“Uh-huh,” responds Seth again before reaching his destination. He shoves five dollars over the seat, thanking Babayale for the ride. He doesn’t mention the music.