Late Jazz Club Owner Leaves Storied Legacy In San Francisco

Those who knew San Francisco impresario Agonafer Shiferaw knew his character, how he believed in fairness and opportunity for all who searched for success.

Shiferaw, the former owner of the historic Rasselas Jazz Club in the Fillmore District which opened in 1986 and closed in 2013, died on Nov. 11 after an almost year-and-a half battle with cancer, according to his wife, Net Alemayehu—owner of the Sheba Piano Lounge—and other family members and friends who spoke with The Standard.

Funeral services for Shiferaw are scheduled for Tuesday at an Oakland Ethiopian Church and he will be buried in Piedmont. Afterwards, the family will host a celebration of life at The Fairmont Hotel in Berkeley.

Shiferaw is survived by Alemayehu, his sister and his only daughter from a previous relationship, Bete Agonafer.

Agonafer Shiferaw poses with his wife, Net Alemayehu and his daughter Bete Agonafer. Shiferaw owned and operated the historic Fillmore District jazz club, Rasselas, for the better part of two decades. | Source: Courtesy Net Alemayehu

Born in 1952 to a prominent family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Shiferaw came to the United States in 1970 as a student at San Francisco State University, where he studied management and landed a job in local government.

The emigré worked his government job for 10 years before pursuing a business opportunity, opening a True Value hardware store in 1984 on Divisadero and California streets—across from where Rasselas would eventually open in 1986.

Rasselas was a community hub, Alemayehu recounted, and served as an extension of Shiferaw’s innate desire to break bread with everyone around him.

In the late-1990s, he moved Rasselas to Fillmore Street as part of the city’s attempt to establish San Francisco’s Historic Jazz Preservation District.

Net Alemayehu—the owner of the Sheba Piano Lounge and wife of the late Agonafer Shiferaw—stands with a portrait of her husband in her lounge. Shiferaw, who owned the historic Rasselas Jazz Club in the Fillmore District for 26 years, died on Nov. 11 after an over year-long battle with cancer. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Although admitting he wasn’t a jazz connoisseur, those close to him said Shiferaw developed relationships with local jazz musicians—like Ledesi, The Crusaders and Martin Luther McCoy—and often gave them the stage during open mics he would host every Monday.

Outside of music, he used Rasselas as a place where the community could gather during events like 49ers Super Bowl parties and Barack Obama’s first election in 2008 and reelection in 2012.

Shiferaw’s death, according to his wife, came as a shock to the family and those in the Fillmore who remember Shiferaw as the dynamic entrepreneur who played an instrumental role in the district’s jazz renaissance in the late-1980s and early ‘90s.

Charles Spencer—who befriended Shiferaw after years of knowing him during his time as president of the merchants association in the Fillmore District and owner of the New Chicago Barbershop—remembered his friend as a man with a sharp business acumen who always gave back to the community.

A picture of Rasselas Jazz Club, owned by the late Agonafer Shiferaw until 2013, on display at the Sheba Piano Lounge on Wednesday. The club was a staple in San Francisco’s jazz community for the better part of two decades. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

“He understood money, interest rates, finance in a way that I think most people don’t,” Spencer said, adding that Shiferaw would often throw Friday happy hours that would feed the community. “It was kind of like a community happy hour. He wasn’t making any money because people would come and eat but wouldn’t drink. He did it because he realized how much people enjoyed it and he liked seeing people have a good time.”

Spencer’s wife, Dana, described Shiferaw as a man who always gave people the benefit of the doubt and acted as a statesman in the Fillmore, always sharing his time and money with those around him.

“You hear about public servants that go and run for office and do nothing for the people,” she said. “Agonafer never ran for an office but he was a true public servant. He served people, he loved people. And I’ll say that is what was instilled in him, who he was and was a part of his being.”

Agonafer Shiferaw enjoying a drink while sitting inside of the Sheba Piano Lounge owned by his wife, Net Alemayehu. | Source: Courtesy Net Alemayehu

Shiferaw always questioned power dynamics and resources, his daughter, Bete, remembered, saying one of the motivating factors in his immigration to the United States was him ruffling feathers in his home country.

“He didn’t understand why everybody didn’t have the same resources,” Bete said. “He wanted to make sure people felt supported enough to go for opportunities. I think a lot of times these systems (in the United States) are set up to discourage people and I think that was what he was pissed off about.”

By the early-2010s, several tenants who inhabited the Fillmore Heritage Center shuttered and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency closed. The area once sold as the Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District—sandwiched by Shiferaw’s Rasselas and Yoshi’s—was on life support.

According to Spencer, Shiferaw made four different attempts to buy the Fillmore Heritage Center location starting when he closed Rasselas in 2013 until 2022 but was stifled each time.

“He had the money,” Spencer said. “He had the experience. He had the operational knowledge and was able to get additional capital necessary, but they wouldn’t sell Yoshi’s to him.” 

Agonafer Shiferaw and his wife, Net Alemayehu, pose for pictures near the Christmas tree at the Rasselas Jazz Club. | Source: Courtesy Net Alemayehu

In 2018, Shiferaw filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that Mayor London Breed prioritized certain community leaders and political allies in the bidding process for the center.

A federal judge struck down Shiferaw’s lawsuit in 2022 and he filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court in early October 2023, federal court records show. 

Currently, just two jazz clubs remain on Fillmore Street after decades of redevelopment and gentrification have all but decimated Black spaces—one of which is Alemayehu’s Sheba Piano Lounge.

Agonafer Shiferaw poses with his wife Net Alemayehu. The couple both owned and operated their own jazz clubs in the historic Fillmore District. | Source: Courtesy Net Alemayehu

She credited her late husband with motivating her to open Sheba in 2006 and that his vision of what was once aimed to be the center of jazz culture in San Francisco still remains intact through her establishment.

“He made it happen,” she said.Without him, I wouldn’t have opened this place for me and for my sister. He just wanted to make our dream come true. It’s very hard in this city—especially for minority women to be in that scene.”

Although she describes herself as an independent woman and business owner, Alemayehu said that the way Shiferaw lived his life and worked hard motivates her to keep his name alive.

“He was the driving force and I don’t want his legacy to die,” she said. “You just don’t get anything done just by being a quiet and nice Net. You have to go and do something. That’s what he left me.”

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