Beyond the beat

Jul 5, 2000 at 12:00 am

Despite ample cooperation and good will among the ethnically diverse group, putting on a two-day music festival is no easy feat – particularly when most of the musicians are scattered around the world. Last week, about 30 people from various local communities and cultures gathered for a final planning meeting for the Concert of Colors, a music festival that will be held at Detroit’s Chene Park this weekend.

Ishmael Ahmed, who headed the discussion, frantically quieted the group and announced, "We still have about a thousand details to nail down."

Details such as: Will Nelson Mandella’s favorite South African band, Amanpondo, get their visas in time for the concert? Are there enough drivers to pick up the 35 bands at the airport – all arriving at different times? Has anyone contacted the Serbian or Croatian community to see if they want to host the Serbian-Croatian band, Sviraj? Does the petting zoo have a permit to set up?

After about two hours of frenzied conversation, most questions were answered. But the group lets out a moan when Ahmed reminds them that next year’s concert – which will highlight Detroit’s 300th birthday – will be even bigger.

Considering what the group has already achieved, it should be a cinch to pull off.

Forging partnerships

About 15 years ago, various ethnic groups around Detroit organized the first Concert of Colors. Ishmael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab-American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), is one of the founders of the event. He says that the concert is not just about exposing Detroiters to new forms of music; it is about forging partnerships between ethnic groups and highlighting Detroit’s diversity – no easy feat in reputedly the most racially divided city in the United States.

"It’s not really the music business that we’re in," says Ahmed, "it’s the community-building business."

The concert, which expanded from one to two days this year and will host twice as many bands – as well as a petting zoo, percussion stage, and 60 vendors – is a natural meeting place, says Ahmed.

"For people of color, culture is very important, it’s very powerful," he says. "It’s more than art as a product or something to be enjoyed. It’s about identity of self and others."

Today, many people of color, including Latinos, Filipinos, Caribbeans, Africans, East Indians, Chaldeans and others are establishing bonds by working on the concert.

Ahmed has hopes that the project can help transform a racially divided city.

"When people enjoy each other’s lives and culture, it is a first step to breaking segregation," he says.

Though ACCESS is a main sponsor of the concert, Ahmed says that his group cannot take full credit for it or the relationships that have formed within the community. New Detroit, Inc., which ACCESS asked to come on board eight years ago, has also played a major role, particularly with helping raise $1.5 million to put on the concert and other events, he says.

Deepening the bonds

Sue Hamilton-Smith is the executive vice president of New Detroit, Inc., a city-based organization founded after the 1967 riots to improve race relations. She says that the Concert of Colors is key to promoting New Detroit’s mission.

But it is not only the concert that fosters good race relations. She says that the annual cultural-exchange series is also essential.

Last winter, ACCESS and New Detroit, as well as 70 ethnic and community groups, put on three ethnically diverse events at major art institutions – and each was a smashing success.

The first was "A Night in Morocco" at the Henry Ford Museum, where Arab-American musicians and dancers performed. The Royal Oak Theatre hosted Caribbean artists, and the Peking Opera was held at Music Hall. Not only did each event sell out – with hundreds more turned away – the audiences were very mixed, says Hamilton-Smith. What made it successful, she says, is that the various ethnic groups promoted the series within their communities.

When ethnic groups bring in artists from back home, they often perform in homes, local schools, halls, churches, libraries or community centers. Holding these performances at mainstream venues is integral to fulfilling the series’ mission, says Hamilton-Smith. This way people of color form partnerships with traditional art institutions that tend to overlook these groups.

In the next two years, nine to 15 more cultural exchange events will be held at similar venues throughout metro Detroit, she says. The series also enables contact between various cultures year round.

"By having repeat contact with people, they get much more comfortable with each other," says Hamilton-Smith.

Signs of change

Marie Weng, who heads the Organization of Chinese-Americans, says that the recent demonstration her group held is evidence of the growing bonds between diverse cultures. Last June, the OCA needed people to picket the downtown Federal Building to protest the arrest and treatment of Dr. Wen Ho Lee. The Taiwanese-American scientist who worked at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab was charged with illegally downloading nuclear secrets into computers. Lee has been in solitary confinement since December without bail and awaits a trial next fall, according to news reports.

But Weng and others say that the U.S. government is targeting Lee because of his ethnicity. She called on the various communities she has come to know by working on the Concert of Colors to protest with the OCA.

"They understood that this is not an issue unique to Chinese-Americans," says Weng. "The same injustice has been done to many other ethnic groups."

According to Weng, about 70 people from the Chinese, Latino, African-American, Filipino and other communities protested.

Weng says that working with the concert and the cultural-exchange series is the best way to get to know people from other backgrounds.

"Naturally, we all have social circles and we don’t go out of them," she says. "So this way it takes us out of our social spheres and enlarges our spheres."

Amanda Caballero, executive director of Latino Family Services, says that she was skeptical when New Detroit asked her to join the group two-and-a-half years ago. But she says that it has made a tremendous difference for her organization. Grants New Detroit provided allowed Caballero’s group to open a women’s center that provides job training and education.

"I think it is the only organization that is working hard and succeeding at making sure there is access and opportunities for all groups," she says.

The Coalition for Responsible Immigration Policy also sprang out of the Concert of Colors in 1996. David Gad-Harf, who heads the coalition, has been working on the concert about 10 years. He also is the executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metro Detroit and says that the coalition formed because many ethnic groups face immigration challenges.

Some of their goals include advocating for humane immigration policies, creating positive images of immigrants who are often scapegoats and opposing racial profiling, says Gad-Harf.

"We understand that we all benefit by working together," he says.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]