Why Rock Bands are Playing D.C.’s Ethiopian Restaurants

Courtesy of Bora Chung

Brian Waitzman plays with pop-Americana singer Flo Anito at Almaz on Sunday. An Ethiopian flag hangs behind him.

On Sunday afternoon, Ethiopian music blared from speakers in the first floor dining room of 1920, a Habesha restaurant in the heart of Little Ethiopia. But the sound of a woman crooning in Amharic was overpowered by Bake Sale, a post-pop rock band playing on the second floor.

All up and down the U Street Corridor this past weekend, bands representing an eclectic range of rock music played in Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants as part of the first Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival. Six Habesha-owned or themed restaurants took part.

Organizer Dave Mann said when he first hatched the idea to hold a two-day rock music festival, he asked the city’s more traditional rock venues to host shows, “but they weren’t into it.” Some already had booked calendars and this was the first STPP festival, so it was uncertain how much revenue it’d bring in.

Then Mann met Mike Naizghi, the Eritrean owner of Bella Café, who was looking for music to fill the second-floor of his café that serves American and Eritrean fare. He then introduced Mann to more Little Ethiopia restaurant owners, and soon six were on board. The restaurants made money through drink and food sales, the bands made money through merchandise sales and all shows were free. Mann brought more than 100 bands to the restaurants and he plans to hold a bigger festival in October.

“The consensus of all of the owners of the Ethiopian restaurants is, they say to me, ‘Look, there are tons of Ethiopian places in D.C., so obviously a lot of them aren’t going to have the same amount of business as the others. We need a different clientele,’” Mann said.

The festival kicked off just after news broke Friday that no charges would be filed in the death of Ali Ahmed Mohammed, which had initially been linked to rock club DC9 employees and sparked outraged among the Ethiopian community. While there is a considerable amount of pain and confusion in Little Ethiopia over the case, there wasn’t much resentment and anger to be found over the weekend. Concertgoers milled in and out of venues as bartenders were kept busy serving drinks.

Mann said no one brought up Mohammed’s death as he booked acts in the restaurants. And the festival’s aim wasn’t to focus on or ease any such tensions. “It’s about bringing the D.C. music community together,” he said.

Naizghi spoke over the loud music playing at Bella on Sunday, saying he’s seen at least a 35 percent increase in sales thus far.

“It’s slow, but we’re trying to pick it up. At least this is going to pick up business,” he said. “We tried to make new business. So far it’s going OK. It’s the first time.”

Craig Keenan of D.C. came to Bella to support local bands, and he said the idea of the festival taking places in local Habesha restaurants “is awesome.”

“It’s in all of these neighborhood places,” he said. “I’ve been here once but knowing they have music, I’ll probably come back.”

Julia Eiferman had been to Bella once before, but said she probably wouldn’t have come back if it weren’t for the music festival.

“[D.C.'s rock clubs] get a lot of national acts, but they don’t get as many indie acts,” Eiferman said.

Andrew Laurence, president of the Ethiopian-American Cultural Center, has noticed many restaurants have renovated or added additional floors in order to host shows and private parties to help make ends meet. The revered Dukem, for instance, just opened a second-floor VIP lounge.

A few blocks away from Bella, Charlie Harrison Band bass guitarist Justin Cohen just finished up a gig at Almaz. He sat with friends, eating injera and vegetables and drinking Ethiopian beer. Cohen said that on his way to the show, he had thought how interesting it was the he was going to play country and Western music in an Ethiopian restaurant.

Stephen Carleton of Denver came to watch Cohen play in what was his first visit to an Ethiopian restaurant. Attracting such first-timers is what many of these restaurant proprietors are aiming to do. But some are slowly drifting away from serving Ethiopian cuisine altogether in an effort to be competitive.

Reggie Eliacin and his girlfriend recently bought Queen Makeda, which was once an Ethiopian restaurant on 9th Street, NW. They hosted shows during the music festival, and had hip-hop DJs and other bands in the past.

“There are so many Ethiopian restaurants here. We are going to do something a little different,” Eliacin said. “[Ours] is more like a bar. We don’t even serve Ethiopian food anymore.”

Eliacin said hosting new types of music can be good for other restaurants in the neighborhood.

“The diversity is important to just get exposure to their restaurants. Some people maybe never thought of coming into the area or a restaurant now have an opportunity to come in,” he said. “I always say, if you’re open to different ideas, it gets the name out there, and I think it’s better even for this sort of community.”

Laurence, considered Little Ethiopia’s unofficial historian, has mixed feelings. He welcomes any way to keep these restaurants alive.

“I love the fact that all these people are coming down for the first time. It is a way of marketing, of Ethiopia opening arms to the whole world,” Laurence said. “The diversity of America is a two-way street. Maybe this is what we should be aiming for. This whole U Street is happening because of this kind of energy.”

But Laurence also said it does take away a bit from the idea of a true “Little Ethiopia.”

Ideally, he’d also like to to see young professional Ethiopians also host their parties and events in Little Ethiopia’s restaurants, rather than go downtown to upscale clubs like The Park.

“After 10 [p.m.], if I come down here on a Friday or Saturday night, you don’t have the sense of Little Ethiopia. So that is sad,” he said. “It does, to me, take away somewhat from the block and the whole feeling, the smells, the tastes… It does detract somewhat of the ultimate dream, the fantasy. But on the other hand, this is a whole other fantasy that I’m beginning to appreciate.”

STPP festival was just hours away from wrapping up on Sunday night, with the sounds of hardcore rock still filling the air along 9th Street. But the smells that filled the air were still of tibs, spiced-lentils and key wot.

Photos courtesy of Bora Chung.

  • Jody Brady

    Loved the festival. Love the article. I was another first-timer to a few of the venues involved who came only because of the festival. Now I plan on going back.

  • Pearlex

    Love the photos!  I enjoy this ‘Bora Chung’ :D

  • Ryan McDermott

    Great fest. I played it on Sunday and I think it was a total success. And if it boosts the business to these restaurants then that’s even better.