Female performers rule Concert of Colors

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Headlining this year’s Concert of Colors, always one of Midtown Detroit’s summer highlights, will be a rollicking lineup of women representing a kaleidoscope of cultures — from India to Mexico to Japan.

The metro area’s 24th-annual “diversity festival,” where all performances are free, runs Thursday-Sunday.

The Detroit News caught up with several of the women who will pump it up Sunday — Astrid Hadad, Kiran Ahluwalia and Cibo Matto — to talk over musical inspiration, concept albums, and, at least in one case, fabulous costumes.

Astrid Hadad

Astrid Hadad

Cross Frida Kahlo with Carmen Miranda, add sly humor and social commentary, and throw in some utterly astonishing costumes and you’ve got Astrid Hadad, Mexico’s favorite cabaret artist.

One American newspaper called Hadad’s act the most provocative cabaret since the fizzy excesses of 1920s Weimar Germany. The third-generation Lebanese-Mexican performer will appear Sunday in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“My act is a little like German cabaret,” Hadad says in a phone call from Mexico City, “except that this is Mexican. And Mexico is always exuberant.”

As for the political humor, she says that’s essential in a country where the population has long been estranged from its governments.

“I want to provoke people to think things they otherwise wouldn’t think,” Hadad says. “Because in Mexico, most people hate politics. Instead of complaining all the time,” she adds, “I use the humor.”

Hadad sings, dances, composes and constructs her own resplendent costumes, some so architectural they almost approach portable sets.

Her songs are in Spanish, but, she says, “I speak English if I’m in the U.S., or French if I’m in France. They’re both very bad, but it doesn’t matter. People understand a little.”

Musical styles Hadad weaves into her act include ranchera, bolero, rumba and rock. Then she gives the whole thing a deft surrealist touch — another element linking her to Kahlo.

That said, the campiest 59-year-old you’ll ever find denies Kahlo was an inspiration for her work, at least not in the early years.

“When I was starting,” Hadad says, “Frida was not yet that famous. Still, everyone insists I was inspired by her, so I will sing one of her favorite songs, ‘The Little Deer.’ ”

Kiran Ahluwalia

Kiran Ahluwalia

Kiran Ahluwalia credits three powerful influences with shaping her music: Sikh spirituals, classical Indian music, and the lush passions of Bollywood musicals.

“But what I sing now are modern Indian songs,” she says from New York, “with influences from jazz and the African Sahara.”

Ahluwalia fell in love, she says, with the guitar-centric blues associated with the Tuareg people, one Mali’s ethnic groups.

With its characteristic pulsating rhythms, the singer/composer says, “I was right away attracted to Tuareg music and wanted to own and possess it.”

Ahluwalia will take the stage Sunday at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center. She sings either in Urdu or Punjabi, both languages from the north of India, but insists that’s not a barrier with American audiences.

“I myself listen to African music when I don’t understand it,” she says. “There are certain patterns of notes, certain phrases and rhythms that carry emotion, and that is where the connection is made.”

Ahluwalia lives in New York’s Harlem (“I don’t know if I could live anywhere else”), but was born in India and raised in Toronto, where she still maintains a home. “I go to Canada quite often, so I don’t have the opportunity to miss it that much,” Ahluwalia says.

Her set, she says, will include older numbers as well as songs from her latest CD, “Sanata: Stillness,” which won best world-music recording at the Canadian Folk Music Awards last year.

As usual, Ahluwalia will perform with her husband, Pakistani-American guitarist and arranger Rez Abbasi (Downbeat’s “#1 Rising-Star Guitarist”), a musical partnership that’s been remarkably fruitful.

“Rez, of course, is a celebrated jazz musician in his own right,” she says. “I’m very lucky to have him in my group.”

Cibo Matto

Cibo Matto

The braintrust behind Cibo Matto are two Japanese women living in New York, who first made their mark with a 1990s album all about food.

Fittingly, “cibo matto” means “food madness” in Italian.

The two women behind the rock duo are Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, who first got together in an early-’90s punk band called Laito Lychee (which some pundits called “the best band you’ve never heard of.”)

Cibo Matto, which eventually pulled in the services of Sean Lennon, has gotten more attention. The pair will appear Sunday at Orchestra Hall.

Two of the group’s videos, “Know Your Chicken” and “Sugar Water” — both from the first album, “Viva! La Woman” — have done very well online and helped lead to the group’s appearance on several TV shows years ago, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“When we started,” Hatori says from New York, “we were two Japanese girls doing punk. That was about it. Then we moved on to food.

“That was cool, with some very romantic and melancholic songs. In Japanese culture,” she adds, “food is so important — it’s a passion, like with Italian people.”

The pair’s most-recent album, “Hotel Valentine,” released through Lennon’s label Chimera Music, continued Hatori and Honda’s interest in high-concept albums.

The songs of “Hotel Valentine” lay out a narrative starring a hotel, a ghost, and what Honda called “housekeeping ladies” in a 2014 press release that accompanied the album. Things happen,” she said, adding cryptically, “but they are elusive in nature.”


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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Performance times

Cibo Matto

3 p.m. Sunday

Orchestra Hall – Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit


Kiran Ahluwalia

7 p.m. Sunday

The Music Box – Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit


Astrid Hadad

7:30 p.m. Sunday

Rivera Court – Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit