Get your multiculturalism on, baby

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This year’s 13th annual Concert of Colors once again features musical powerhouses from around the world for good times with a higher purpose.

“The real aim is to bring together people of different backgrounds and different cultures to enjoy the vast variety of music and culture that we all have — in an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable to do that, and they actually have a good time doing it,” says organizer Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

Culture and the arts “have the ability to reconstruct communities,” Ahmed says. “You have to think a little about doing that — it doesn’t just happen. People have to get a little out of their comfort zone to do that, and that’s what we try to do here.

“I think the big deal here is America’s always been a very segregated place, and Detroit is particularly segregated. That’s really true of our music,” Ahmed says, noting that many kinds of traditional and international music are almost entirely ignored by mass media. “Here’s a real opportunity to put it all on Front Street and bring people together to see not only things that they care about but also to see some things that they had no idea [about].”

But this sampler platter — this cultural dim sum — isn’t just squishy feel-goodism. Ahmed says there have been concrete positive outcomes. The festival is organized by ACCESS and New Detroit, with help from a committee of leaders from a wide variety ethnic and community organizations. This conglomeration meets every month to plan the event, and in the process, members of different communities have gotten to know each other.

“So now someone from Charles Wright knows the head of the Hmong Community Center and the head of the Hmong Community Center now knows the person from Alternatives for Girls,” Ahmed says. “What we’ve created is a relationship between people that’s done so many things that the concert hasn’t. The concert’s their big product, but, for instance, out of that group came the Fair Immigration Coalition, which actively works for better immigration policies. It meets regularly, too, and many of the groups are part of that.”

One band on the bill that would agree on the value of music in building communities is the multiethnic Afro-Latin funk band Ozomatli, which was formed in 1996 to help raise money for the Peace and Justice Community Center in Los Angeles.

“It wasn’t even about being a band or making a record or touring or any business aspect of playing music,” said percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi. “It was just about playing music, having a good time and raising money for other causes.”

The band continued like that for the first six months, but eventually began playing clubs and established a local following. Its last record, Street Signs, came out in June 2004; a live DVD and CD package is due out next month.

Yamaguchi compared music to food. “Food is something that everybody takes a part of; you have to eat in order to survive. Food is also something that people around the world take pride in. It’s a way you can get into somebody’s culture.”

Plus, he adds, “It’s a good social activity, which is also something that builds bridges.”

Also appearing on the bill is Mali’s answer to the MC5, Tinariwen. The group was a revolutionary unit of Touareg tribesmen who were involved in an armed struggle. “They literally did trade in their guns for guitars,” Ahmed says.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, guitarist-singer with Tinariwen, talked about the group’s history (his answer was translated into English by Tinariwen’s manager Andy Morgan).

“Once we fought with guns,” Alhousseyni says. “We won some battles and we won a greater democracy and federalism in Mali. So it wasn’t useless, but no one apart from the Malians themselves, and a few journalists and intellectuals in France, knew about our struggle. Now we use music to communicate, and our message is being heard across the world. People in Mali are talking about the Touareg, about Kidal, about the Adrar des Iforas, about the problems of drought and malnutrition, about the rebellion, about desert blues. Music did this. It’s clear which is the most powerful tool. A guitar is more powerful than a gun any day. So music is a very useful tool for change, but more than that, it’s our whole life, and we couldn’t do without it.”

Ahmed also believes that culture is an effective tool for societal transformation. “I don’t think that we need to think that culture is too soft a way to change things, because I believe culture has changed things dramatically,” Ahmed says, noting that struggles like the civil rights movement had a cultural context. “I think the bus trips of Motown down to the South were as important as the demonstrations were.”

It’s likely that Algerian singer Khaled would understand that concept. Known as the “King of Raï,” Khaled combined infectious dance beats to that traditional music form. In the process, he reinvigorated raï and helped topple an anti-Arab law in France.

Khaled will play the Concert of Colors with legendary Detroit-bred producer and bassist Don Was. Was discovered the singer in the mid-’80s when he found some of Khaled’s bootlegs in Europe. He was drawn to Khaled because he played all the instruments himself, using early synthesizers and drum machines.

“It was very radical music to make,” Was says. "It felt like electronic folk music.

“I had no idea what he was singing about,” he continues. “I started reading up on him and got the story. I felt he was the last incarnation of rock ’n’ roll, of the true rock ’n’ roll spirit — but other things paled in comparison because his life was truly on the line. Raï musicians, because they weren’t singing only about God, were being gunned down in Algeria. I always admired Gene Vincent because he wouldn’t wear a tie on [American] Bandstand,” Was laughs, “so this, this is something else.”

Even without understanding the words, Was found himself moved by Khaled’s emotional delivery. “I have to listen to him like I listen to Coltrane. You’ve just got to feel the emotional content as opposed to understanding the poetry.”

Was got to know Khaled and was asked to produce some tracks with him. At the time, Was says, there was a law in France that limited the amount of Arabic-language content broadcasters could play each week. Khaled’s label wanted him to record in French to get airplay.

“The decision was made to hold our ground, sing in Arabic, do what we want to do — but make a record so infectious that they had to play it. And that was ‘Didi.’”

“Didi” became a No. 1 song in France. “They had to repeal the law because the requests at the radio stations were so great that they had to reconsider this law. That was a huge triumph.”

And talk about a multicultural stew — those sessions were a veritable United Nations!

“Here I am, this Jewish kid from Detroit, going in with these African-American soul guys from Detroit, working with a North African guy who is Muslim, and we’re beating down a racist law in France,” Was says. “It represented significant social action. It wasn’t just a pop music decision. It meant that you had to include the Algerians more in the mainstream of life, and it constituted social progress. That’s what we got into this for,” Was says.

Was went on to produce much of three of Khaled’s albums. Those tracks were peppered with such Was (Not Was) alumni as David McMurray and Randy Jacobs. Khaled appeared live with Was (Not Was) in France, and on a surreal Tonight Show where the only other guest was Jimmy Carter. Was says he was oblivious to the cultural importance of the collaboration until Khaled began working on his new album, Ya-Rayi.

“It became a reunion,” Was says. “All I know is I love this guy and we make records together every so often. I didn’t understand that ‘Didi’ was the Sgt. Pepper of the genre, that it blew the whole thing wide open for raï musicians to start making things that had grooves and to appropriate more from the pop vocabulary and still do raï music,” Was says.

The Concert of Colors was established by New Detroit in 1993 and ACCESS joined as a co-sponsor in 1999. New Detroit is a nonprofit organization that addresses the issue of race relations and works for economic and social equity; ACCESS is a social services organization aimed at developing the economic and cultural life of the Arab-American community.


The 13th annual Concert of Colors runs July 15-17, the first night in the Max M. Fisher Music Center (3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit), followed by two nights at Chene Park (2600 Atwater St., Detroit). The festival includes food, family activities, arts and crafts, and workshops. Admission is free. For the full schedule of performers, call 313-842-7010 or visit

Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].
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