One Big Block Party

The annual Concert of Colors has morphed from a nomadic event into a festival that unites through music
Photographs by Doug Coombe

Long before finding its current home in Detroit’s cultural institutions along Woodward Avenue, the Concert of Colors (CoC) was sort of a nomadic block party — one built to show off the diversity of the city’s neighborhoods.

In the late 1960s, CoC curator Ismael Ahmed found a calling in rock concerts for causes. In a post-1967 riots Motown struggling with racial dynamics, he was working at the grassroots level to use music as a mediator. “I learned how powerful culture can be for people of color,” recalls Ahmed, 66. “Its ability to bring people together across class, culture, and color is like no other.”

At the same time, New Detroit was founded to spark a conversation. Founded shortly after the 1967 riots by then-Gov. George Romney, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and business executive Joseph L. Hudson, the coalition aimed to address societal ills by putting together a choir of change voiced by big business, civic activists and catalysts, and politicians as well as community and religious leaders.

So when Ahmed joined New Detroit and became chair of its race relations board in the mid-1980s, he found a metaphorical megaphone. He proposed hosting block party concerts focused on the food, fashion, and music unique to African-American, Latino, Asian, Arab, and Native American culture.

The community bought into it. The one-off concerts drew broadly — with community liaisons mingling among people stumbling into something fun.

City government paid attention, too. In 1993, New Detroit was given the chance to host the inaugural Concert of Colors at Chene Park at no operating cost and — most importantly — free admission for patrons.

Detroit’s “community” comes colored in a wealth of backgrounds. The musical acts booked throughout the years were diverse. At its peak, the Chene Park version had corporate sponsorships bankrolling multiple stages across several days — pushing the budget to nearly $1 million. Attendance exceeded 100,000 during Detroit’s centennial celebration.

But by 2005, CoC faced the same economic realities the rest of the city and state were facing — cut back or shut down. The city could no longer offer Chene Park free of charge. But the decades spent in-vesting in the community began to pay dividends.

“We’ve been going hand-to-mouth financially for years,” explains Ahmed. “But when you don’t have money, you have friends.”

Organizers downscaled and relocated to Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center with the help of Detroit Symphony Orchestra President Anne Parsons. Surrounding cultural institutions jumped on board. The good will was happening backstage, too. Musician and producer Don Was got involved and The Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue was born. For the past several years, it’s been a staple of the festival, and featured musicians perform for free.

The festival has always been about bridging cultural gaps through music. And the Concert of Colors stages have top-notch global talent that favors cultural representation over star power.

Acts are like a live version of the radio program, “This Island Earth,” Ahmed hosts each Saturday on WDET 101.9-FM. (Want to know what might get booked at the Concert of Colors next year? Tune in.)

“World music is definitely an inappropriate brand, so I tend to use the global term,” explains Ahmed. “If you wanted to go look for something at a record store but there weren’t any categories, where would you start? This is many cultures and many ways of expressing them through music. [Concert of Colors] has a huge Detroit component, too. This is really a community effort to give a voice to people of color in our city.”

Ahmed is also a founding member and the former director of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services). One of ACCESS’ projects includes the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which now serves as the primary producer of the Concert of Colors.

This year, Concert of Colors warms up with the Chicago Afrobeat Project and the Afro-Cuban stylings of Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca at New Center Park on July 5. The following weekend, a floodgate of performers take over Midtown — including acts like Celtic rockers Black 47, Seun Kuti with Fela’s Egypt 80 (members of Fela Kuti’s original backing band), and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer performing with Motown legend Melvin Davis (the product of backstage bonding the year before).

Concert of Colors continues to mediate through music. It remains focused on the faces of the volunteers; the musicians taking a bow; the exposure of culture that might be unfamiliar.

“In 22 years, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of people of all kinds with no issues,” says Ahmed. “The vibe helps. We always say  at the end of the day, ‘Before you leave, we want to remind you that you are brothers and sisters. Take care of each other.’ It might sound cheesy, but it’s something we believe in.”

The Concert of Colors runs from July 10-13 along Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit with a special “tuneup concert” on July 5 at New Center Park. All performances are free.

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