Georges Collinet, host of the weekly public radio show Afropop Worldwide, is well aware of the mysterious power that music has to help shape people's hearts and minds.
During the four decades that Collinet worked for Voice of America, he spun American rock, R&B and jazz to audiences in Africa. His English- and French-language shows were heard by 120 million people. He says that listeners would frequently call him and lambaste him for working for the evil American government.
"At the same time," he adds, "they would think that people who make such beautiful music jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll and all of that can't be bad people. It's impossible. They have to be very good people.
"We at the Voice of America won the Cold War," he says without a hint of boastfulness.
So it is apt that Collinet is coming to Detroit one of the most segregated areas in the country to participate in this weekend's Concert of Colors, which is dedicated to bringing diverse communities and ethnic groups together by presenting musical acts from around the world.
It has become important to reverse the process Collinet experienced during the Cold War to happen. "This is supposed to be a melting pot," Collinet says by telephone from his home in Washington, D.C. "But in reality most Americans are ignorant of the world's cultures even when representatives of those cultures live next door."
Music is a good way to start that process of discovery. "It helps bond people of different colors, to start with, but also of different nationalities," Collinet says. Collinet's Afropop Worldwide has been helping bond different peoples since it debuted 18 years ago. The show is now broadcast on more than 100 stations nationwide including Saturdays at 6 p.m. on Detroit's WDET. It reaches an estimated audience of more than 150,000 listeners weekly.
Collinet will host a pair of Afropop dance parties during the festival, where he will spin records and talk about them as well as take the opportunity to meet his listeners.
"People love meeting Georges, so he'll be meeting with his fans," says Sean Barlow, producer of Afropop Worldwide.
Barlow says they have staged several dance parties in Detroit over the years, but none recently.
"They were always very fun, good turnouts, very successful," he says.
Collinet, Barlow and native Detroiter Misha Turner (who is Afropop's office manager) will produce an episode of Afropop Worldwide with highlights of this year's Concert of Colors. Barlow says some of the acts Afropop will be paying attention to at the Concert of Colors include Daara J, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Poncho Sanchez. "But I don't want to single those out and disrespect the others," he adds.
Collinet kicks off the festival with the first-ever Forum on Community, Culture and Race on July 14. The invitation-only event's 300 attendees will discuss how understanding culture and race can strengthen and revive communities. The aim is to begin to understand how people of diverse backgrounds can come together around arts and culture and how those elements can be used to break down racial and ethnic barriers.
Other confirmed panelists include Heidelberg Project artist Tyree Guyton, Detroit Symphony Orchestra president Anne Parsons, Mosaic Youth Theatre founder and executive director Rick Sperling and Madonna University director of multicultural affairs (and university bandleader) Ozzie Rivera.
Collinet will give the keynote address, which will be followed by a series of panel discussions and small-group sessions.
Much like the Concert of Color's organizers, Collinet takes this business of cultural exchange seriously. He was born in Cameroon and educated in France and the United States. He worked for Voice of America from 1962 to 1995 and started Afropop Worldwide in 1988. In addition to his radio responsibilities, Collinet has been spending a lot of time in Morocco, working on a documentary on the progress in that country's human rights and economy.
"It's quite exciting," he says, adding that the documentary's aim is "to promote a new way of how to boost the economy of emerging countries."
"I'm doing that in conjunction with the World Bank," he says. "They want to propose and suggest how to improve the economy in other countries. It's quite a challenge to put together a thing like that."
Collinet is also working on a video for UNESCO to enhance awareness of slavery and its aftereffects particularly in the Americas, where the practice of slavery was the harshest.
"Even today, those people who are descendants of slaves are still psychologically reeling from it," Collinet says. There is research, he adds, that shows the slave experience was so horrifying that it altered their genes and the genes of their descendants.
Many of those descendants are "still demonstrating psychological deficiencies, due to the harshness of the life that their ancestors have led," Collinet says. "It hurts, it's not a very easy subject to deal with, but it's very exciting."
In addition to those projects, Afropop has been approached by the United Nations to produce a program for their peacekeeping stations around Africa, including war-torn areas like Congo and the Ivory Coast.
People in those areas frequently don't have access to information about music from other parts of the continent, Barlow says, adding that the Afropop programming will help "in a broader term of bringing consciousness of the rest of the continent and the importance of culture and how music is a business."
The Afropop Worldwide Dance Party will be 5-7 p.m. and 9:45-11:15 p.m. on Friday, July 14, on the Diversity Stage.
Brian J. Bowe is the editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to [email protected]