Selam Is Getting Into the Groove
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, May 11, 2007
Selam Restaurant sits on a heavily trafficked stretch of U Street NW, midway between Adams Morgan and the 14th Street corridor, but unless you're a fan of Eritrean food, you've probably buzzed by the place without a second thought.
In the past year, though, Selam has been growing under the radar, luring DJs from some of the city's better-known clubs and dance parties to spin in the intimate basement space, whether for one night or for a monthly residency.
Sam "The Man" Burns, dean of Washington's deep house scene after long runs at Red and Dragonfly, worked the decks in March. DJ Meistro, known for dropping hip-hop bombs at the acclaimed Oh Snap! parties at Wonderland, took a regular turn at a night called Solid Gold. Neil Payne, formerly of the house-rocking Funk DC crew, joined Pete Welsch, once a resident at Baltimore's Sonar nightclub, and Eighteenth Street Lounge alumna Christine Moritz for Chuffed, which melds funk and down-tempo with Deee-Lite and old-school rap.
DJ K.C. Higgins sold the owners on hosting a monthly house-music night last spring, but the scene didn't pick up until winter when Chris Burns came on board. Burns, a recent D.C. transplant who spins classic disco and soulful house at venues as diverse as the Rock and Roll Hotel, Bohemian Caverns and Napoleon, played at Selam at Higgins's invitation, and says that as soon as he wandered down a short flight of stone steps and saw the restaurant's single room, "I saw its potential and saw how it was underused."
Selam is an unlikely club or lounge, although a few promoters have tried in the past, most notably when it was a hipster hangout called Fluid for a few weeks in summer 2001. The space is no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, and I've seen bigger dance floors at house parties, once the sofa and coffee table were moved out of the living room. Honestly, it feels more like a friend's spartan finished basement -- one with a long, curving bar, a dozen stools and old photos of Eritrea on the battered walls.
Burns and Higgins got to work on booking DJs, mostly house and hip-hop but giving DJs freedom to experiment as long as it got the room moving.
The resulting crowd is a melting pot you don't see at most clubs and what really sets Selam apart from its competition. A guy with a mohawk dances next to a man with dreads; a woman with a brightly patterned dress sits at the bar next to a couple whose clothes could pass for casual Friday wear. Black, white, Asian. Sneakered, dress-shoed, high-heeled. The uniting factor is a love of music and a willingness to throw yourself out on the floor, get lost in the grooves and dance away the working week's problems.
Last Friday, as DJ Onis led the crowd on an hour-long journey from Madonna to Duran Duran, then up-tempo mambo and Latin on the way to deep, bass-rich house music, more than half of the 75 to 80 people present were gyrating on the dance floor instead of hanging out at the bar. Spontaneous break dancing erupted, women twirled in place and the folks who ducked out to the front stoop for a cigarette or some fresh air kept nodding their heads to the beat. (The air conditioning isn't on blast, so dress for comfort if you're going to dance.)
"You've got to be pretty open-minded to come in here," Burns says. "There's not a funny light system or white leather couches or bottle service. It's a basement, a red light and a stereo."
For at least a moment on Friday night, or the Saturday before that, or a Friday before, I flashed back to Red, the legendary late-night refuge, or the back room at the old State of the Union, where outfits and expensive drinks were secondary to the joy of dancing to an eclectic mix of tunes that could wind up anywhere by the end of a set.
The real proof, though, is that the crowd on the dance floor always beats the crowd gathered around the bar.
Selam is family run, and the owners keep it basic and friendly: There's no cover or dress code, and you'll pay $5 or less for Heineken or other beers. Chat with the bartender long enough and you might get a shot on the house, and free food is offered on occasion.
"We've been in business for 10 years," explains Moses Haile, son of owner Haile Gersus. "We've tried jazz and funk. I took over as manager a year ago, and this is what I like to do, so I thought, 'Why not try something new?' We've seen an increase in business, and K.C. and Chris have such a diverse group of people."
There's more to come. Moses Haile is considering opening the restaurant's second room, currently dominated by a large pool table, and installing new lights and sound equipment. Burns and Higgins are talking about adding regular Thursday night events.
On Friday, Burns and friend Gavin Holland, who has a show on XM Radio and DJs at DC9's monthly Nouveau Riche party, unveil an eclectic new night called Party Bros. Holland promises "a really awesome time. . . . I'm definitely going to play 'Tell It to My Heart' by Taylor Dane. I'll play the Stooges and I'll play N.W.A. I'll play 'I'll House You' by the Jungle Brothers at least five times."
DJ Will Eastman, founder of the long-running Bliss night at the Black Cat and the man behind regular parties at the 9:30 club and the Rock and Roll Hotel, is slated to take over the second Friday of the month, while Ris Richards, the former Q and Not U guitarist who now runs Crowd Control at DC9, will have the third Friday slot.
But Burns stresses that he's not limiting the schedule to big names. "Other than Sam Burns's night, there's no deep house nights in the city on a weekly basis. Where can a new DJ go out and cut their teeth? A lot of people got their start at Mantis and Rendezvous, and those places are gone.
"Selam gave me the chance to spin, to get known. If you have good musical taste and background, I'll put you in."