Karaoke in transit

First of all, I want to say that I’m blown away by the response that my previous post (the one about Santacon) has generated. I never would have expected an honor like the “Freshly Pressed” selection just four posts into my blogging career. In fact, I had not known that this coveted endorsement even existed. On Monday morning I was just some guy bugging my Facebook friends to read my latest blog entries. And now . . . I’m pleased to report that this site, launched a mere 11 days ago, has already welcomed visitors from at least 102 countries.

So thank you all for coming, and for taking the time to read my little jottings. I’m particularly excited about the geographic diversity of you, my readers. This site is global in scope (being that it focuses on my world travels), and it’s important to me to hear perspectives from people in every corner of this big blue marble we call Earth (and yes, I’m aware that spherical objects such as marbles don’t have corners. Work with me here).

With Santacon now in my rear-view mirror, I’m preparing for my long weekend in Lisbon, for which I leave on December 29. While there, I plan on indulging in some karaoke singing, which would make Portugal country no. 24 on my World Karaoke Tour. Any singing that I do in Lisbon will most likely occur in a pub or restaurant. An eatery or drinkery is, of course, the standard setting in which karaoke is delivered, at least in the Western world (a variation, popular in Asia and some parts of the United States, involves renting a private room with your friends and singing only to each other. In a future post I’ll have more to say about private-room karaoke, often dubbed “karaoke box,” which was made famous in a scene in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”).

But in a growing number of cities and towns around the world, a very different type of karaoke experience is available. Some enterprising taxi drivers have installed karaoke machines in their vehicles.If you’re lucky enough to hail such an enhanced cab, you and your fellow passengers can sing while en route to your destination. Or you can board the taxi without even having a particular place to go, because if you’re like me, karaoke is your destination. 🙂 There is generally no charge for the opportunity to sing, beyond the fare that you’re already paying for the journey (although grateful passengers often tip extravagantly). And best of all, you don’t have to wait behind a long rotation of singers for your next turn at the mic.

As I will discuss below, I recently had the pleasure of taking a ride in a “karaoke cab” in Washington, DC. A search of Google and YouTube indicates that similar taxis have proliferated recently — sometimes using names like “Cabioke” to brand the multifaceted service that they offer. In addition to the capital city of the United States, they now roam the streets of such metropolises as Bangkok; Singapore; Taipei; Budapest; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Dallas; Nashville; St. Louis; and Charlotte. They’ve even cropped up in smaller municipalities including Tacoma, Washington; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Chico, California. So pervasive has this trend become that a filmmaker in Thailand is raising funds to make a movie about a karaoke cab. That one is so going in my Netflix queue when it comes out . . .

The man who made possible my Washingtonian karaoke cab experience is Joel Laguidao, who drives for the Red Top Cab Company in northern Virginia. A charismatic Filipino, Joel was recently featured with his vehicle  on a segment of the American morning television program, the “Today Show”:

Joel first came to my attention this past summer, when one of my Facebook friends linked to an article about him on NPR’s website. Let me backtrack a little here, because my November 2011 ride with Joel marked the culmination of a nearly three-year quest.

2008: the Memorex fiasco

My odyssey began in December 2008 when I received a call from my friend Colin, who told me that he’d just taken a ride in a karaoke cab right here in New York City. A Google search quickly informed me that a fleet of six karaoke cabs was being dispatched from selected points in the Big Apple. It was a promotion sponsored by Memorex: if you sang and permitted Memorex to videotape your performance, you could earn a free ride in the cab. I would be only too happy to sing for my fare.

There was one problem: I soon learned that the special cabs were only operating in New York on a temporary basis, for a period of just a few weeks. The day on which I received the hot tip was, in fact, the final day of the promotion. Even worse, it turned out that the Memorex fleet of karaoke cabs had been dodging cable cars in San Francisco a month earlier, during the same time that I’d been visiting that city– and I’d been tragically unaware of their presence. So I missed out on them twice!

I regarded the Memorex debacle as a massive intelligence failure on my part.  But in fairness, maybe there was no need for regrets.  I looked more closely at the website that Memorex had maintained for its vagabond fleet; and I discovered that the singing took place  in front of the cab while it was still parked at the curb. You would collect your free ride after you sang. But once you boarded the taxi, the karaoke would be over.  How lame is that — a karaoke cab where you don’t actually get to sing inside the cab? As Lionel Hutz would say, that’s the most blatant case of false advertising since The Never Ending Story!

Regardless of whether one of the Memorex cabs would have provided a satisfactory experience, one thing was certain. With the expiration of the Memorex promotion, there were no karaoke cabs of any nature to be found in New York City. That appalling absence continues today:  over 13,000 licensed cabs in New York City, and not a single one has on-board karaoke. If I wanted to become a singing passenger, I needed to broaden my geographic horizons. But that was okay; after all, traveling for karaoke is what I do.

2010: the Charlotte incident

My second failed attempt occurred in September 2010.  I was flying from Newark, New Jersey to Rio de Janeiro. During that voyage, I was going to have an approximately six-hour layover in Charlotte, North Carolina where I was changing planes (Charlotte Douglas International Airport is a major hub for US Airways, the airline that was conveying me to Brazil). Knowing I would have all that time to kill in the Charlotte metro area, I was excited to learn of the karaoke cab servicing that region.  A jaunt in it would be a memorable way to start my vacation.  So I contacted the driver. We exchanged voice-mail messages. The message left by the driver (who shall remain nameless) said he would be “glad to pick [me] up,” and he added that I should call him back on Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week (my layover in Charlotte would be the Thursday of the next week) to advise him as to what time I would be arriving in his city. What I didn’t know yet was that I would never hear from Charlotte’s karaoke cab driver again.

The following week, with my departure to Charlotte fast approaching, I called him as instructed. I began to grow concerned when the driver didn’t respond to any of the three voice-mail messages I ended up leaving for him. In those messages, I had attempted to set up a time and place for him to meet me in downtown Charlotte (I felt it would be easiest if he met me there and drove me back to the airport). He was also informed of the time that my flight was expected to land. But as I boarded the plane to Charlotte, I still had not received confirmation from the driver that he would meet me later that day.

My arrival in Charlotte was on time. Immediately after deplaning, I put in a call to the driver, but his phone went straight to voice-mail. So I left a detailed message, and proceeded to the the ground transportation area in the airport. Time elapsed, and my phone didn’t ring. I tried calling the driver again, and again was greeted with his outgoing voice-mail message. Undaunted, I headed to the bus lanes and boarded an express bus to Charlotte’s central business district (What the hell else was I going to do during a six hour layover? CLT had not yet joined the emerging trend of airports with karaoke).

When I reached downtown Charlotte, the karaoke cab driver again failed to answer his phone.  I even contacted his dispatcher, who had no better luck than I did in trying to track down the AWOL driver. In fact, she advised that she hadn’t heard from him all day.  To this day, I have never heard back from the karaoke cab driver who stood me up in Charlotte.

Happily, though, despite the dismal start to my holiday, my ensuing excursion to South America and Easter Island turned out to be one of my all-time great vacations.  Sometime I’ll tell you about my adventures on that trip — including my attempt to outrun killer dogs on Easter Island. Singing in a karaoke cab, however, remained an unfulfilled wish.

2011: redemption

When I learned about Joel and his karaoke cab in Washinton, DC, I just knew that this time things would be different.  It helped that D.C. is much closer to New York than Charlotte is.  It’s very easy to get down to D.C. from New York for a weekend trip (which I do several times a year; after all, I attended law school there, so I have many friends in the area and I retain an affection for the city). As a result, unlike with my one-time layover in Charlotte, I would feel no pressure to make my ride happen on any particular day.  If things fell through for whatever reason, I could just try again.

Using my proprietary research skills, I managed to get in touch with Joel, and to speak with him on the telephone (The fact that he actually answered his phone was the first good sign. Joel is a genuinely nice guy). We quickly settled on a mutually convenient weekend for me to become his passenger.

On Friday, November 11, I took the train down to D.C. after work.  The following afternoon, I met up with my friend Becca, who had agreed to serve as videographer for my groundbreaking taxi ride. We took the Metro to the Ballston stop in Arlington, Virginia (I chose that location because the Red Top Cab Company is based in northern Virginia and I wanted to make the pick-up point convenient for Joel, who did not yet know me.). At the appointed time, Joel Laguidao showed up with his cab outside the Ballston station entrance. Becca and I got in and took our seats, and we were off.

We didn’t actually have anywhere specific to get to, other than a general desire to end up in the city. So we spent nearly an hour as Joel’s passengers.  Joel drove us over the 14th Street Bridge that spans the Potomac River, and we proceeded past the Washington Monument and towards the Capitol building.  But I wasn’t in town for sightseeing. While glimpsing national landmarks through the window of Joel’s Crown Victoria, I was doing something that I’d been striving to make possible for almost three years: I was singing karaoke in a moving vehicle! My bucket list had just shrunk by one.

Here is one of my selections from that magical cab ride: John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Fittingly for that anthem of cooperation and harmony, Joel joined in with me (and I apologize in advance for the slight technical glitch with the audio):


And for a much different vibe, here I am performing “La Bamba”:


Joel is a passionate performer in his own right. Here you can watch him belting out a classic ballad by Journey:


Joel has a brand-new Facebook page! So if you like what you’ve seen of him here, please stop by his page and show him some love.

Now at this point, you may be wondering what recourse you may have if you do not live in, and are unable to visit, one of the locales where you can order a karaoke cab. Well, the obvious solution is to buy a car of your own with a built-in karaoke machine. Carpooling with your co-workers will never be the same. And if you scoff at my suggestion, I will have you know that someone else already came up with this idea, all the way back in 2003. In that auspicious year, the Chinese automaker Geely made a karaoke machine standard equipment on its BL (Beauty Leopard) coupe. And while you may not have heard of Geely, the company is not some piddling little buggy-maker; in 2010, it bought Volvo. Admittedly, the BL coupe is no longer in production. (Geely never responded to my email asking whether the in-dashboard karaoke machine is available on any of the models in its current product line.)

A friend recently asked me why I enjoyed the karaoke cab so much, given my previously-stated preference for playing to a crowd rather than singing in isolation. And admittedly, it would seem that the available listener base is quite limited when you’re inside the sealed environment of a motorcar. I guess I can’t completely explain my inconsistency. I’m pretty sure that my voice was audible outstide the vehicle, so that may be a part of it. But only a part, since no one on the street would have been able to hear me for any great length of time. Maybe this is just one of those instances where I have to say “I liked it,” and leave it at that.

By the way, another form of “karaoke on the go” is to sing while on a floating vessel.  In October 2008, I took an evening karaoke cruise around Manhattan Island.  I understand that karaoke nights are also widely held on international cruise ships, although I’ve never booked passage on one of those behemoths of the sea.  One of my work colleagues has suggested that I should take advantage of this phenomenon, and that now that I’ve been able to check off six continents on my World Karaoke Tour, I should set a goal of singing in each of the world’s oceans.  Hey, there are only five of them, so that would not be too long of a list to work through.  I will say that I’m taking this proposal quite seriously.

Meanwhile, now that I have conquered both land and sea, I am looking upward for my next great challenge. My newest ambition is to sing karaoke on an airplane. I’ve worked out most of the details, and it would go something like this: Since commercial airlines have not yet exhibited the good sense to include karaoke among their in-flight entertainment options, I will need to provide my own instrumental music and lyrics. So I will need to be on a flight with wi-fi; then, using my laptop, I can log on to one of those internet karaoke sites. Ideally, I would like to stream a live video feed of my performance so that people on the ground can serve as a virtual audience. Now, I realize that my fellow passengers will be unlikely to indulge even a few minutes of a singer in seat 25A. To avoid provoking air rage, I may need to hole myself up in the lavatory, as I join my own version of the “mile-high club.” This plan is complicated and has a lot of moving parts, but it just might work!

Whether or not the H-Bomb phenomenon takes to the skies, of one thing I’m sure: I will ascend no higher than cruising altitude. Space will not be the final frontier for me. I hate amusement park rides such as roller-coasters; I get motion sickness when subjected to those g-forces (although curiously, I rarely feel airsick when flying through turbulence). So I could never become an astronaut. Even if I somehow acquired the boatloads of funds that would enable me to afford a private spaceflight, I could never bring myself to sign up for such a mission. The H-Bomb will have to remain earthbound. But there’s a whole lot more of the world left to cover on my World Karaoke Tour!

UPDATE: I’ve discovered that there’s a New Zealand-based alternative rock band called “Karaoke Taxi”! As far as I can tell, however, that band has never actually performed in a taxicab. 🙂

My scenic ride in Joel Laguidao’s karaoke cab included views of the Washington Monument.

Categories: North America, World Karaoke Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Karaoke in transit

  1. Elizabeth Marley

    This is terrific Harvey! Have a great trip to Lisbon! 🙂 Elizabeth Marley

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  2. WRT singing on the water, most cruise ships these days have karaoke, although not in sufficient quantities for me.

    My family tool a Baltic Sea cruise this past summer, and our ship (Royal Caribbean‘s Jewel Of The Seas) had a karaoke contest in one of the bars on four of the 11 nights. Their selection of songs was pathetic, but it was still a lot of fun.

    On another cruise, several years prior, on another RC ship, Explorer Of The Seas, there were five karaoke events over a 7 night cruise. One “family” event, and four contests.

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    • I’m not surprised that one of your waterborne karaoke experiences was in the Baltic. Karaoke is HUGE in Finland . . .

      I AM surprised at the existence of all those nightly contests.

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  3. Hahahahaha I never heard of “Cabioke” before. If you mentioned it that day, I was kinda out of it. =P

    I LOVE THE LIONEL HUTZ REFERENCE!!! 😀

    You can see the National Mall outside the cab during La Bamba. 🙂

    “Carpooling with your co-workers will never be the same.” <– hehhehheh you're cracking me up. Wish I was in a better mood that day. 🙂

    Love your "mile high club" idea. Hahahahaha. Though I have to say, if I've gotta go, I'd rather not have to wait for someone in the lavatory to finish a song, heh heh.

    If I make it to LV when you're there, maybe we can do karaoke in my friend's airplane, that I would be flying. Go ahead, look up "Cirrus SR22," I'll wait. … what do you think? 😉

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    • @Becca D: Many airline passengers are in the lavatory for longer than it would take to webcast one of my three-minute songs. 🙂

      And I will NEVER go above ground level in anything as terrifyingly small as that Cirrus . . .

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