Cedar Cultural Center celebrates 25 years of hosting global music

The Cedar Cultural Center
The Cedar Cultural Center opens in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn., in 1989.
Courtesy of the Cedar Cultural Center

The little Minneapolis movie house screened everything from art house films to porn, but still struggled. In 1989, new owners decided to try live music instead of film.

As they renovated the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood theater, they discovered something much bigger -- a space that was neither a bar nor a performing arts hall, a room where audiences could form a semicircle around the performers and no one was more than 30 feet from the stage.

It created an intimacy the Cedar Cultural Center is known for to this day.

What began 25 years ago as a place to hear Celtic tunes has survived and grown into a global music venue. If you want to catch an Ethiopian funk band in Minneapolis, this is your place. It's also a good choice for second-wave ska, French electro swing or even Norwegian ice music, performed on instruments carved from the frozen water of local lakes.

Bajofondo, a group of musicians from Argentina and Uruguay, performs to a packed house at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2013.
Courtesy of the Cedar Cultural Center

"It's unpredictable from night to night," said Sage Dahlen, the Cedar's incoming artistic director. "There are very few threads that can be used to tie it all together -- other than it's all happening here," she said. It's a "listening room for eclectic global music."

Audiences, too, are becoming increasingly diverse. In 2011, Tinariwen, a band from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali, played for an audience of black business men, white college students, East African immigrants and neighborhood hippies.

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"It used to be considered either very academic recordings of traditional music or really bad international pop," recalls executive director Rob Simonds. "And there was a transition period where there used to be these pretty big debates. We've actually had guys picketing about a specific band saying, 'This is a fraud.'"

Case in point: The Swedish folk-rock band Garmarna, which played the Cedar in November 2000. Out on the street, people decried the performance, arguing that this was, in no way, Swedish folk music.

"Usually it's the older generation that is very fixed in the idea of what Swedish folk music sounds like or fill in the blank," said Simonds. "And it basically is the music of their grandparents, the immigrants, because it froze for them at that time, as soon as they left the home country. But it didn't freeze for the people that still live there. Even traditional music is continuing to evolve."

Spider John Koerner
Spider John Koerner performs on an early incarnation of The Cedar's stage circa 1989.
Courtesy of the Cedar Cultural Center

Cultural appreciation through music has always been the Cedar's mission, said marketing coordinator Michael Rossetto.

"I've seen instruments on the stage that I didn't know existed," he said. "I've been fortunate to meet people from countries that frankly I might not have the luxury of visiting."

"The nice thing about the Cedar is your best resource is the person next to you," said Rossetto. "If you've never seen this artist and you're like, 'Hey, I know nothing about Japanese Koto playing,' the person next to you might be teaching a class on it."