A Funky Meeting of Music, Art and Eritrean Ambiance

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, August 15, 2008

An Eritrean restaurant doesn't seem an ideal place for an indie rock band to play. Or for a dance party. Or an art exhibition.

But Washington lacks the warehouse spaces, hospitable neighbors and dicey parking lots needed to throw events as offbeat as, say, those in Baltimore. And so Dahlak it is.

Dahlak is that smallish restaurant at the corner of 18th and U streets that opened in 2006 and has, over the past six months, become the spot to DJ or play a show. How this has happened exactly, we can only guess: It seemed to take off when a popular local blog, Brightest Young Things, began posting word about the events at the space, with not much mention of what Dahlak is exactly. The mystery, apparently, translated into interest.

Dave Mann has been booking bands at Dahlak since April, when the restaurant's owner, Daniel Mesifeni, approached him to help lure new crowds to the restaurant. Mann has gotten photographers to show work there, complete with opening parties. (This month, the inaugural exhibit is photos from Steve Strawn's surreal studio portrait series, "Robots and Dolls." Beginning Sept. 3 is a show of photos by Lexie Moreland.)

In reality, it's hard to see how a dance party, rock show or art opening could work in the long, narrow space decorated with Ikea paper lanterns. There is no place for bands to keep instruments, so the musicians wait outside with their drum kits. Patrons continue eating their injera long after the shows start. Musicians were at first lax about telling their friends. "No one's going to show up at your shows if you're not promoting it," Mann says of those early days.

But that intrigue thing. People do come for the concerts and DJs, and now bands contact Mann to get booked. The diners seem to like it. (Mesifeni says one of his hopes was that the shows would expose area Eritreans to different forms of entertainment than they're used to.)

The shows, a mix of Brit-pop, indie rock, folk and Americana, are free. Add art on the walls, and something does indeed seem to be happening at Dahlak.

Tomorrow, the showcase includes resident Dahlak performer Kalem of the East (no, really -- he's on practically every night there are shows), local folkie act the Able Birds and the interesting lo-fi act Ash Lovely. Scheduled down the road are James Apollo on Sept. 14, and local act the Jet Age (whose album "What Did You Do During the War, Daddy?" got a more than respectable 8.0 from Pitchfork) plays Sept. 27.

Still, Mann concedes, even the bands remain confused about what to make of Dahlak: "There have definitely been inquiries," says Mann. " 'Hey, wait. Is this a restaurant or a venue?' "

Concerts and art exhibitions at Dahlak are free. Tomorrow night at 10; open-mike nights are Thursdays. 1771 U St. NW. For a details about other upcoming shows, visit http://www.dahlakdc.blogspot.com.

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