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Concert of Colors launches pandemic edition on TV, radio, online
"We're ready to start this?" Don Was asked from the stage of an empty Detroit Film Theatre last month.
"OK -- masks off!" he added before his Detroit All-Starr Revue band and Detroit music veteran Billy Davis began the slow, aching blues of John Lee Hooker's "I'm in the Mood."
Suffice to say that's not a stage command Was has ever uttered during the past 13years at the annual Concert of Colors. Then again, this year's incarnation of the festival is unlike any that's come before it.
A fixture in the Detroit art schedule, Concert of Colors usually takes place during July in the city's Cultural Center area. The COVID-19 pandemic shut that down, of course, so this year's CoC is six-day event -- starting Oct. Tuesday, Oct. 6 -- that will be broadcast on Detroit Public Television (Channel 56) and WDET-FM (101.9) and livestreamed via concertofcolors.com, dptv.org and wdet.org.
It will miss the crowds and the colorful, multi-cultural community interaction that's grown around it since 1993, but, as the saying goes, the show will go on and generate its own brand of musical memories.
"Our focus and mission is community self-determination and art -- and that's exactly what it's about this year," says CoC founder and Executive Director Ishmael Ahmed. "I describe it as kind of a visit to the dentist, trying to fill all the cavities at once. But it worked."
Was, an Oak Park native and Grammy Award-winning producer, adds that, "To be honest, there was an element of a crapshoot to it. You just sort of cross your fingers and jump in. It was certainly different not having the audience, but the camaraderie of playing with people, I loved it, and I think it's going to be look good and sound good when people see it."
Ahmed says that by April he knew that CoC would not be able to occupy its usual July spot and planned to reschedule into the fall -- which subsequently became untenable as well. He was initially cool to the idea of a streaming event -- "I really don't think that does justice to the music," he explains -- but executives at the Detroit Institute of Arts broached the idea of bringing in DPTV, which also produced the livestream of this year's Detroit Jazz Festival.
"After talking to them, and to WDET, it was clear we could do it," recalls Ahmed, who also hosts "This Island Earth" Saturdays on WDET. "We'd have to make an investment to make it happen, but it looked like we could pull it off.
"So we contacted a lot of the bands that we had canceled and said, 'Hey, are you willing to do it?' and many of them said yes."
Was, for one, was on board immediately -- and even considered driving his mobile home across the country for his first performance since March. "I didn't think twice about it," says Was, whose tribute to Hooker includes locally based notables such as Davis, John Sinclair, Martin "Tino" Gross, Tosha Owens, Thornetta Davis and more.
"I love (CoC) so much. I love doing it every year. Once the lockdown came it was a daunting prospect, but it's just good for the soul to get back to Detroit and play and all that."
There was more drama with some of the festivals other acts, however. After a COVID scare at the DIA delayed the filming schedule, 80-year-old vibraphonist Roy Ayers dropped out with just 24 hours notice and was replaced by the genre0blending Kalamazoo group Last Gasp Collective. Alina Moor & Fuego, featuring bandmates from Straight Ahead, replaced another band that had several members opt out of the gig.
"We talked to several local bands, then a couple bands out of Chicago, all of which tried to figure out how to do it but couldn't pull it off," Ahmed says. "A lot of them had not been practicing for five months. A lot of them didn't feel like it would be the right thing to do. They all had a lot of respect for Concert of Colors and wanted to maintain the quality of it."
The festival is hardly wanting for quality, however. With a decidedly local flavor, it will also include a salute to longtime Detroit jazz radio host Ed Love, A Centennial Salute to Charlie Parker by Leafar Village, Chinese erhu virtuoso Xiao Dong Wei, the indigenous Native Canadian band Digging Roots and Sean Blackman's In Transit. a panel discussion forum opens the festival on Tuesday, Oct. 6, while electronic music mainstays John Collins and Mark Flash of Underground Resistance close things on Oct. 11.
"I think this is a super diverse group of people performing, and many of them have something to say," Ahmed notes. "The quality of what we got is as good as anything we would have presented pre-COVID, and I think it's really cool we could kind of dig up the best of Detroit for this. I think it means Concert of Colors is meant to be, and its mission of peace, love and justice is still served."
The 28th Annual Concert of Colors runs Oct. 6-11, broadcast on Detroit Public Television (WTVS, Channel 56) and WDET-FM (101.9) and livestreamed via concertofcolors.com, dptv.org and wdet.org. Visit concertofcolors.com for schedules and other details.
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