Cedar Cultural Center celebrates 25 years as a Minneapolis gem


Concerts are for listening to great live music—or rather, they should be.

If you’re a weathered concertgoer in the Twin Cities, you’re likely familiar with the numerous music venues it has to offer. On the other hand, you’ve also dealt with too many pushy diehards and disrespectful loudmouths to truly enjoy a favorite song.

Lucky for Sage Dahlen, rowdy crowds aren’t a problem at the Cedar Cultural Center. Meant to serve as a “listening room,” the Cedar is an intimate and respectful setting where performers bring a different kind of show, said Dahlen, the venue’s artistic director.

Housing 200 spectators for a seated show and 600 for sold out standing ones, the Cedar’s stage is oriented so audience members are close to the performers, no matter where they sit.

“There isn’t a bad seat in the house,” Dahlen said. “I know that just sounds like a line you would throw out … but it’s really true.”

International flavor

The Cedar is a nonprofit organization located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Known for hosting a wide variety of local, national and—most remarkably—international talent during the last 25 years, the Cedar’s mission is to “promote intercultural appreciation and understanding through music,” said director of development Adrienne Dorn.

Fulfilling those goals for more than two decades hasn’t been an easy feat, especially in a music-rich area with abundant live entertainment offerings. But Dahlen excels at capturing diversity in the Twin Cities.

A University of Minnesota grad who worked as an on-air DJ at Radio K, Dahlen not only books talented musicians, but also promotes a unique global scene that no other venue can match. By recognizing these worldly musicians and the communities they can bring together, she allows fans to see the Twin Cities with a more cultured lens.

Dahlen utilizes resources like Minnesota Public Radio and globalFEST New York to find the right artistic fits. She also brings an audience member’s approach to booking, having experience as a volunteer before picking up a paid position.

Marketing director Michael Rossetto believes a strong sense of community is what makes the Cedar so intimate. He has experienced it firsthand, both as a staff member and musician.

“The Cedar to (audience members) exists as this little world,” Rossetto said. “They have this concept of the Cedar’s bubble.”

And there’s no shortage of proof. As a nonprofit, the Cedar has a pool of nearly 300 volunteers, some that come as often as three times per week. Dahlen recalls one volunteer from Stillwater who commuted regularly to shows for years, using the music to cope with chronic pain.

His “unspoken feedback” is the best kind Dahlen can receive. The interaction between venue and patron is a major reason the Cedar has stuck it out for more two decades, she said.

Right, top: The marquee at Cedar Cultural Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Middle: A crowd assembles for English folk singer Billy Bragg at a recent show. Bottom: Sage Dahlen, the Cedar’s artistic director. (Photo submitted)

Looking back

Celebrating 25 years as a music venue has also allowed Dahlen, Dorn and Rossetto to reflect on some of their favorite memories.

Described by the Cedar’s website as “cooly infectious Afro-pop,” Malian performer Fatoumata Diawara is a unanimous favorite of the trio. In her show at the Cedar last April, she pulled up four random fans that reflected the global diversity of the audience. Upon seeing a young West African girl, a middle aged West African dance instructor, a Somali woman and an older white man, Dorn remembered thinking, “Everything we’ve been working toward is happening!”

One of Rossetto’s most memorable shows is from February. Minnesota Public Radio’s 89.3 The Current called it an “epic charity concert,” unique not only to the Cedar but also to the Twin Cities.

To raise funds and awareness for Doctors Without Borders, the Cedar hosted a 28-hour live drone—a music style that emphasizes sustained and repeated sounds—as part of the “Drone Not Drones” movement. The idea stemmed from Duluth band Low’s 28-minute, one-song Rock the Garden performance. Acts included Paul Metzger, Marijuana Deathsquads and Low.

Although it was a different type of concert experience, Rossetto said there was still a connection among audience members. It wasn’t necessarily about the music, he said, but the reason behind the music.

“The reason we’re working here is that on any given night, there’s a different community,” he said.

Memorable moments that stick with Dahlen are similar to the live drone—shows that separate the Cedar from other Twin Cities venues. The Fiery Furnaces, normally a four-person indie rock act, opted for a calmer, two-person show at the Cedar. Minnesota country-blues musician Charlie Parr, who often plays to standing crowds in clubs, prefers sit-down concerts at the Cedar for his older fans. The first show Dahlen worked as a paid employee was a group of Cuban throat singers.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Cedar also hosted a collection of shows that highlighted the venue’s mission of cultural understanding. The kickoff show featured Oliver Mtukudzi, a staff favorite from Zimbabwe, and other shows included Ethiopian band Krar Collective, Malian performer Rokia Traore and Ukrainian group Dakhabrakha.

Into the future

So, what can music fans expect from the Cedar in the coming years? Fun and games, amid growing pains.

As the Cedar’s community continues to expand, it may be happening too fast for Dorn to keep up.

“I don’t know of any nonprofit that’s grown this quickly,” she said.

Whether creating new programs or adding more positions, the Cedar staff has high hopes for the future. Getting supporters to fund those ideas is where challenges arise, Dorn said. Hosting 250 live shows a year is only a fraction of the financial picture for a music-based nonprofit.

Top of the list for new programming is the 416 Club. Funded by grants from The Jerome Foundation, the 416 Club commissioned seven local artists—from a pool of more than 100—to compose diverse interpretations of music. Dahlen is particularly enthusiastic about this year’s original performers.

“It’s been everything from a classical interpretation of what it’s like to be an animal in the zoo—played on the harp—to a ping pong table rigged with contact mics,” she said. “We’re coming up with some pretty incredible people, and I hope that The Cedar can continue to take a role in that kind of artist involvement.”