Ismael Ahmed had already spent decades promoting music to break down differences when he and his wife, Margaret, found their home in Farmington Hills.
The city’s diversity was a selling point when they chose, about five years ago, to settle on quiet Parklane Street, near the intersection of Nine Mile and Gill roads.
Soon they discovered that a neighbor was a horn player in a symphony orchestra. Another was a singer in a blues band.
“We didn’t know that. We just moved in,” said Ismael Ahmed.
The neighborhood is near perfect for the couple engaged in music activism in Detroit.
He created the Detroit Free Music Festival, concert of colors, which runs from July 16-24 for this year’s 30th anniversary. She is a retired musician, yogi, and educator from Dearborn who founded a peaceful parenting program for the school district.
They have been together for about 40 years. She compares their family to the Brady Bunch as she and her husband work on their second marriage.
They have five children and eight grandchildren, and Ismael Ahmed said they are multicultural and multiracial, just like the musical crowds he enjoys being a part of.
Ismael Ahmed’s heritage is Egyptian and Lebanese. His father brought his family from New York to Detroit to open a record store which ultimately failed.
The family remained, and Ahmed graduated from Fordson High School in Dearborn before joining the military and serving in Korea.
“I came home and became a high-profile activist,” he said. “Traveling around the world and being in the military in a divided country like Korea really changed my view of the world. So I became kind of a super activist.
“I’m not going to detail the list but very active in the anti-war movement, very active in (the) fight for the urban renewal of neighborhoods.
He had stood in front of bulldozers threatening an Arab neighborhood and enrolled in college when, in the early 1970s, he co-founded the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS)now the largest Arab-American social service organization in the country.
His accomplishments since then are many, and they include the music performances he began to organize to destroy the pernicious undercurrents of racism and to bring people from all walks of life together for cultural exchange.
Detroit Mayor Coleman Young eventually requested a show at Chene Park. Since then, this distinctive event has grown into a premier summer event in Detroit, attracting thousands of people. A wide range of musicians and music from around the world is planned.
“I don’t want to exaggerate,” said Ahmed, who also worked on around 30 years of Concert of Colours. “Racism is not going to disappear because there is a Concert of Colors, but people can get to know each other, undertake things together. This certainly goes through the Concert of colors. They are perhaps a little less afraid.
He looks forward to performances by Detroit-born bassist Marion Hayden; Battle of Santiago, an Afro-Cuban rock band Orisha; DakhaBrakha, a world music quartet from Kyiv, Ukraine; and Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, known as a multiracial army of freestyling jammers.
Ahmed hopes to retire in the next few years, although he anticipates grooving with as many Concert of Colors crowds as possible.
“It starts to happen at transition time,” Ahmed said. “There are a lot of great young people we work with. I hope that over the next two years a lot of what we do will be transferred to them.
The 30th anniversary of Concert of Colors will see Ahmed, 74, and his wife, 65, going back and forth from their home.
They look forward to the familiar routine. He and his wife met while Ahmed was leading his sister’s punk band. During her life, Margaret Ahmed performed as a percussionist and singer in several militant groups.
She appreciates her husband’s musical tastes, which is evident in the songs played on his WDET radio show, “This Island Earth.”
“I’m always introduced to new groups,” she says. “It’s so clever to find stuff all over the world and share it with people who are interested.”
When life returns to normal, they’ll have more time to enjoy their favorite Farmington Hills spots like the Farmer’s Market.
“Everything is accessible — any kind of food you want, any store you want to go. Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do in Farmington Hills,” Ahmed said. “I don’t know what it’s like everywhere else, but this neighborhood is very diverse. I like this. I’m feeling good.”
According to the US Census Bureau, 62% of Farmington Hills’ population is white. Black residents make up nearly 20% of the city, and Asian residents make up about 14% of the city.
Learn more about the Online Color Concert at www.concertofcolors.com.