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How a Detroit World Music Festival Unites Local Communities: A Q & A with Concert of Colors Co-Curator Ismael Ahmed

From July 16-18, 2010, Detroit's Concert of Colors' 18th edition will take place. DubMC took this opportunity to interview CoC's co-curator and spiritual leader Ismael Ahmed about the festival's history and the role it plays in uniting the communities who organize it. Ahmed is currently the director of Michigan's Department of Human Services. He is a co-founder of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) where he held the title of executive director for many years.

Ismael_CoC_2009 1. Why did you start the Concert of Colors (CoC)?
 

There had been several incidents in the Detroit area that showed the need for this kind of event. African Americans and Arab store owners had some incidents. Some Japanese business owners had been attacked during a period of anti-Japanese sentiment. Those are just two of many examples. There was a sense in all of these communities that we needed to work together. So there was an opportunity.
 

It was a great way to pull people together form different ethnic communities. Detroit didn’t have an ethnic coalition at the time. It was an attempt at first to pull the communities of color together. Then as it grew It became broader and brought in the different ethnic communities. The idea was to accentuate the positive. All of us come from generally positive cultures and that is something people can share with each other, as well as the problems. That was the idea. It started out as a single day festival that had a performer from the Asian community, African or African America, Latin community, Arab community, and Native American community. And obviously those communities all had a lot of sub-sets. And those were done in ethnic neighborhoods and took place before Concert of Colors officially started. After five years we moved to a central location called Shane Park, which holds about 15,000 people. The City was very supportive and provided security, facilities, and sound. It was the community’s job to bring forth talent and make it a real festival and to keep it about something. The choices about who performed reflected ideals of the community.  

People from ACCESS and New Detroit (the other partner) went to Korean picnics… performances in Indian doctor’s houses. There was a lot of street organizing to build an ongoing coalition. Few of the people were “promoters” or music experts. They were everyday people who wanted to integrate their communities into larger activities and build alliances. In this case, we did it through music.  

2. How does the original mission of the festival manifest these days?


It continues to do so, maybe even more so. Over the years for instance the City’s Affair Immigration Committee grew out of this effort. It is now a whole separate committee that works on immigration issues. The Chinese and Arab communities helped launch a capital campaign for a new community center. There have been many small offshoots.
 

The mission also shines through within the Concert of Colors event itself. For instance, during the height of the Sudanese civil war, the group purposely brought together both communities of Sudan as well as everyone else, to listen to musicians from Sudan call for unity in the country and an end to violence.  

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It continues to not only bring together people around diverse cultures but also is very insive about what and how it presents those cultures.

3. What is the role of a music festival in addressing social justice, racism, ethnic tensions, and peaceful coexistence? How do you get beyond the token "ethnic food night" at a local school or the culture-of-the-month mentality in a music festival?

I think what happens is if the people in the communities being featured are at the table in a meaningful way, not only do the great things about their community come forward, but their struggles and needs come forward too. The question is do you address that in the program, in the information available, in the process as well as the programming? This is not a format where you do giant rhetorical speeches, but you can deliver those messages in the music. Or you can deliver them through having vendors and tables that talk about it. You can deliver it by having food banks. This year, for instance, we’re having several alternative food activities and by that I don’t mean a mix of vendors. I mean people who are running free vegetable trucks, trying to get fresh foods into the city. If you are open to it and the people reflect the cultures and ideas, it can be done naturally and directly.

4. What artists are you personally most excited to see and hear at this year's CoC?

Kelvin Cook, who is going to be playing at a second stage. He is a sacred steel guitar player, and is as rockin’ as anything I have seen. He takes church music and really rocks it out. Another group that I’m looking forward to is Kenge Kenge. They are a Kenyan benga group that seem to maintain the basic folk culture yet have the energy that will move people; just about anyone. 

5. What are a few of your favorite highlights from years past?


Sometimes the highlights are in little interactions you witness. One of them was when Amadou and Mariam had asked to be introduced to Ray Charles. We introduced them. I watched as they felt Ray Charles’ face and talked to him about how he had inspired them and so forth and so forth. We were watching cultures being crosses right there, right then. For me it was a very poignant moment. I don’t know if it was earth shaking. But these are kernels of what you want to happen.  

CoC1 Another case is the Don Was All-Star Revue that we do each year at Concert of Colors. Don Was is a musician who grew up in Detroit and has always cared about Detroit and watched Detroit go through so many difficult times. We met at a Concert of Colors show where he played bass for Cheb Khaled, whose record he produced a while back. He is among one of the biggest record producers in the world. Yet for the last three years he has come to Detroit every year to do a revue of Detroit musicians (kind of like the Motown Revue). And he does it for free because he believes that Detroit is a great place and has produced great things and continues to do that and he wants to highlight that. So he comes here and talks to every media outlet that will talk to him, to talk about the resilience of the people of Detroit and how they deserve a better shake. And he has also done several other related projects. He is working on a fundraising project along with me on helping to benefit children’s agencies. Half of the children in Detroit now are in poverty. We are bringing in some very big Detroit stars to take part in that effort. He has also been working on a studio project in which young musicians can record for free but at a highly professional level and get some national notice.
 

Another example really has to do with the people that come to the Concert of Colors. There was a point where Los Lobos was playing and I was on stage announcing them. And I looked into the audience and there was literally every kind of people you can think of. People wearing turbans. Really hip looking Asian kids. You name it. The point isn’t just about bringing in the big stars and having everybody come. But that it continues to be something that reflects those diverse communities. 

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