Qwanqwa at Bossa Bistro
Qwanqwa performs Sept. 1. Credit: Steve Kiviat

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While some may equate Adams Morgan with jumbo slices and beer, Bossa Bistro has carved out a niche in the neighborhood as a funky little row house-size restaurant and music venue over the past 20 years. Located on 18th Street NW near Columbia Road, the two-floor joint presents bands and performers playing—depending on the night—African, Latin, Brazilian, Eastern European, and other genres downstairs; reggaeton and pop DJs dominate upstairs. Once the site of legendary Ethiopian restaurant Red Sea, which hosted Ethiopian bands, Bossa’s co-owner Rob Coltun sums it up: “There’s a vibe in the place.”

Coltun, who books the restaurant and plays guitar in several bands that perform there, says Bossa is, to some degree, celebrating its 20 years by doing business as usual, but that’s not entirely true. He’s planning a series of special collaborations for November with musicians who have performed at the venue over the past two decades.  

Bossa’s first floor features a small stage at the front of the club—visible from the sidewalk—with tables along the wall and a standing (or dancing) area between. Each level has a 75-person capacity. The lights are usually dim, and some of the exposed brick walls are covered with folk art and photos from around the world, including a huge print of a spiritual sadhu man from India by photographer Daniel Cima

Coltun grew up in Brooklyn in a family that loved music. As a teenager, Coltun, who is White with Eastern European Jewish roots, played guitar in mostly Black R&B bands, a Santana cover band that was mostly Puerto Rican, and in White doo-wop groups that played Italian-owned discos. After attending the University of Maryland, Coltun worked with routing protocols for the then-developing internet. But as that field changed into a big business, Coltun decided to move on, noting the industry was no longer the “community of engineers and creativity that he had signed up for.”

While playing guitar in a local jazz band, he realized the need for a club that represented his many musical interests. In 2002, he acquired the lease for what is today Bossa Bistro, after briefly running the long-defunct Washington Grill on Columbia Road. Early on, Coltun says, Bossa rarely had a cover charge and benefited from large Adams Morgan crowds. But gradually, cover charges have become a mainstay—part of Bossa’s current business model that helps them better pay the bands. Over the years, the menu has changed too: first organic, then Italian, and—since 2007, when Brazilian co-owner Wagner Depinho came on board—Brazilian.

Percussionist and vocalist Alfredo Mojica, of El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan heritage, and his group have gotten people dancing to classic 1970s salsa and other Latin dance music almost every Friday night since the club opened. “The people who come there are there to see us, not just to go out drinking somewhere on a Friday night,” Mojica tells City Paper. The musician, who has played with salsa greats such as Celia Cruz, adds, “Great local musicians who gig around the area … will come by and join us. We end up with a big band some nights.” 

Touring musicians such as Poncho Sanchez and members of Gloria Estefan’s band have also joined him on Bossa’s little stage. Mojica remembers Bossa’s early days when bands played on the venue’s old tile floor. He’ll never forget the first time they opened the stage seen through the front windows. The new visuals “packed the club that night,” he says.

Guitar and Malian ngoni player Cheick Hamala Diabaté has been performing at Bossa for roughly 17 years. “I am a griot, a history storyteller.” Diabaté says. “Griots like to meet people and bring them together. Bossa is like my nest.” Coltun plays in Diabaté’s band as did his son, Mikey Coltun, who now tours the world as a bass player with Mdou Moctar. Diabaté, who sings in Mandingo, says that when big African stars like Mali’s Ami Koita come to perform at large halls in D.C., he brings them to Bossa to visit.

Since January 2022, local act Dior Ashley Brown & the Filthy Animals have been bringing their self-described “hump day funk” once a month to Bossa. Brown says via email, “Bossa means freedom to me, it feels like a great home base, even the staff is like family; it’s a nonjudgmental space for all people.” She even recalls Wagner telling her during setup one evening, “This is your home.” Since BIPOC cultures have influenced European, Latin, African, and Asian art, Brown says it makes sense that her band’s fusion of hip-hop, funk, jazz, R&B, soul, and rock would fit in as part of the global music spectrum offered at Bossa’s “intimate space.”

While Bossa features mostly local bands, it occasionally hosts touring acts, including Haiti’s Ram and Ethiopia’s Qwanqwa. Over the years, the venue’s local music schedule has included Arab and Indian jam sessions, Brazilian nights, and Sriram Gopal and Friends mixing jazz, hip-hop, classical Indian music, and poetry. 

Although Bossa features a range of global music styles, Coltun is adamant that he is not offering contrived “world music” for Anglos or others to gawk at. “These are communities, and if you’re an outsider, you need to introduce yourself, become a part of it, and show your appreciation,” he says. Coltun is excited for Bossa’s 20th-anniversary celebrations happening this November, and says he’s finalizing a list of special shows featuring musicians from “all over the planet.”