Fueled on OJ-tinged vodka, Panamanian-born Mary Ramirez, the effusive and assertive Detroit Cobras guitarist, met Detroit native Amp Fiddler down at the Metro Times offices last week. Jet-lagged and visibly drained, the spindly African-American still put on a good show.
These two have never seen each other perform; in fact, up to this point they've been barely aware of each other's music. Each lives south of Eight Mile Road and each does swimmingly in Europe. Their music the Detroit Cobras R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll and Fiddler's funk-soul mash-up is similar in that each is rooted in American black music and both are very Detroit. So it stands to reason the pair hit it off, but didn't necessarily agree on everything.
Why did we get these two disparate Detroit performers together for a sit-down? Because Fiddler and the Cobras are playing Detroit's 14th annual Concert of Colors and the timing seemed right to talk about everything from segregation to integration and so much music that's come out of the D. Just two people spontaneously shooting the shit to see what comes of it.
The three-day, free-of-charge Concert of Colors, sponsored by ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) and New Detroit, happens this weekend at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in downtown Detroit.
Fiddler (to Ramirez): Are you from Detroit?
Ramirez: I live in Detroit now.
Fiddler: Where are you from?
Ramirez: I'm from Panama. I'm an Army brat. I ran away to Detroit.
Fiddler: My great-grandfather helped build the Panama Canal. I heard the story from a Mexican man I met at a store that used to be at Woodward and Six Mile. He was this blind old man, and he used to sell relics and shit. He was like, "Yeah, I knew your grandfather; we built the Panama Canal together." I was like, "No shit." I'm comin' in and I'm walking around the store and he's blind and he can't see shit. I'm pickin' up things, he was telling me what I was picking up.
Anyhow, welcome to Detroit; it's good to have you.
Living the color festive
Fiddler: What races come out to your shows?
Ramirez: It's mostly white. And I don't want to call them hipsters.
Ramirez: We don't get hippies; we don't like hippies [laughs]. No, they are the hard music-fan people I mean, oh my God, they know their shit.
Fiddler: Those are the kind of people I have too, there's a mixture of black and white people who are the same way.
Ramirez: I would love black people [to come to Detroit Cobras shows]. I mean, I would look for that crowd any day.
Fiddler: There's black people who love music and know a lot about music. And there's white people there who know a lot about music and love music. And there are older people who show up, like the show I did the other day at TasteFest. There was a lot of older people I mean, in their 60s.
Ramirez: To me, the range of age is so wide at our shows. There's young, there's old. And none of 'em comb their hair.
Fiddler: And my concerts are like that too. There's a nice mixture and blend, and, if I can keep it like that, I plan on making it like that in Detroit and outside Detroit. That's why I like festivals. You know what's cool about that? It brings a lot of people together. That's why I started doing my music. I'm trying to bring people both white and black together.
Most white people, in fact, live in the damn suburbs. That's the damn shame about Michigan. That's what I try to do with my music. I try to bring a mixture of people into a venue to bump heads. And I think that works. It works for me because people interact and they're not trippin'. I think the people who are trippin' the most are the older generation from, you know, older adults who still haven't gotten past that bullshit in their heads about black and white and the differences. It's dope having so many performers bringing a lot of different people into Detroit, into the city.
Ramirez: See, I would think it's the total opposite experience. For me, the people who are trippin' are ... I don't know how I can approach this thing of musical diversity. I like all kinds of shit, and there's no way in hell I want it all put together in one show. No matter how good it was. Now, that [Concert of Colors] show might go well, and don't get me wrong. You know, Hallelujah. But, for the most part, I am my own audience. And I don't want to be tried like that.
Lines of demarcation
Fiddler: On my side of Eight Mile is where all the black people are; on the other side is, basically, the white people, and it's a bad thing. I went to this seminar that dealt with this stuff, and the black people there were like, "Oh no, we never go across to the other side of Eight Mile" and the white people there were like, "We never go on the other side of Eight Mile, because we don't talk to black people." I've got to think that this shit is fucking ridiculous. So you guys are finally having a conversation with each other and it's the first time? And you been living over there all this time and you've been just trippin'? This is just ridiculous for Detroit.
Ramirez: I've never not gone to a show because of a venue unless it's across Eight Mile [laughs].
Fiddler: So people come downtown to see something like the Concert of Colors, obviously they'll be crossing Eight Mile. They're coming from the other side of Eight Mile, basically. I remember when I was a kid in Detroit with the whole integration thing and how it brought people together. That was cool, I think. You know, when I was growing up, my mom took me to the Oakland Mall to get a job; that opened my head up because I went to a mixed school. ...
Ramirez: I was an Army kid and none of this mattered. None of this shit. To us, the black kids were the coolest kids ever. We were just glad to have any kids because we were Army. It was whatever country I was in; it was us against the kids of that country. I never heard the word "nigger" growing up. That is something that is taught here, in the inner city.
But this whole color thing is a bonding thing. And you can't take it away from people. People are different. Black people and white people are different. We enjoy our diversity. We enjoy each other. Don't get me wrong, I embrace diversity. It's good for everybody to have a little bit of something wrong in their back pocket because it makes you not be so righteous. You'd just let people be. People are different and that's good.
Fiddler: There are poor people on both sides of Eight Mile, and we all live the same.
Ramirez: And it's not about black and white; it's more economic than anything. I think if it was the other way around, they would act the same way. It's all about money. On the other side of Eight Mile, if you have a nice car, the cops won't follow you. I don't think that white people in Royal Oak are all that eager to hook up with all the people in Taylor either, you know what I mean?
Why live in Detroit?
Ramirez: Because it's cheap. And because, when you make something your home, it's your home. You make it your home.
Fiddler: So what kept you here?
Ramirez: I became stronger because of Detroit. Detroit allows you a hustle. Detroit's a great hustling town. I mean, if you've got an idea, you can get it done. Anywhere else, it would cost a fucking thousand dollars. Right?
Ramirez: You can always find a job in Detroit, because it's not poor poor; it's working-class. You got an idea, you can see it through. I want to see you try to do anything in Chicago. And that's just Chicago; I'm not even talking New York ...
Fiddler: I was born here. I haven't considered leaving because Detroit has always been good to me. I would consider moving into, maybe, a bigger home. Detroit is part of who I am. My musical background is all based on the music that I've heard from being here in Detroit. From rock 'n' roll to Motown, Ted Nugent ...
Does Detroit music history play out in your music?
Ramirez: I'm not that conscious of it. Black history it's just there. The same with the white history. It's just there; it's Detroit history.
Fiddler: It's always on my head, but it's not something I'm consciously thinking about all the time. I think I hear it because in Europe I'm always asked about Detroit and its past. And I played with a lot of bands and groups who were actually doo-wop groups from the '70s, like Enchantment. That was not the Motown era, but I was brought up as a kid watching the whole movement of that Motown growth, seeing all those bands come up and the way they worked that shit to become popular and successful. That's big on your mind when you're a kid watching these people become successful from nothing. It definitely stays in your head. As you grow older, you see these people on television, some of them are people that you've seen before in the streets. So that's powerful and very infectious. So, in a sense, you want to represent your city in that way. You know, there's a lot of competition out there that claims to be whatever but you just do your shit and have fun. I don't think about it that much, but Detroit and its music is definitely part of who I am.
European fans' expectations of Detroiters?
Ramirez: They are way more knowledgeable. Those motherfuckers know every record, the words, what street you live on.
Fiddler: They know all your business.
Ramirez: The moment you touch down you're doing five interviews a day, going from radio station to radio station. They'd know how Michigan voted in the election. Holy shit, I barely know the name of your city, much less your capital. Those crowds are so different. You'd see little kids wearing Solomon Burke T-shirts. "Where did you get that, kid?" I was so impressed with the kids over there. They seem to be way more open-minded. But, again, don't get me wrong, I still like home better. They [Europeans] might love you more, but it means more to me when I please my home. I don't know why. Maybe because I understand my home. Maybe because I'm a girl and I can go to a gas station looking like shit and hear, "Hey, girrrrl, wanna gooo out?" It really means a lot when Detroit loves you.
Fiddler: There's no place like home. In Detroit they come out. But in Europe they know everything. They know my mom and dad I'm like, "hold on." They know your music and they love it, but because you're from Detroit they expect a good performance from your ass, no matter what colors are in the crowd. They dog your ass if you come out and play a bad show. In London and Paris, it's white and black people together.
Ramirez: The beauty of music is it isn't just one thing. It's not supposed to be one thing. These [Detroit music] communities don't interact with one another and they don't have to. That's what's interesting about Detroit, you got Mr. Fiddler, you got me, and then you got all kinds of other people coming out of Detroit. It's way better than, say, any grunge scene from Seattle, where every band was exactly the same.
Basically the Electric Six did better than the White Stripes (in the UK) by having two top-10s and one top-20 hit off their first album. Here was a band that followed the White Stripes and yet they were nothing like them. I mean they were silly-ass disco but yet they were from the exact same scene, shit the exact same street. But they were different. Over here we have such diversity. Would he [points to Fiddler] and I ever come across each other? I don't know. It's like, "Who's Amp Fiddler?" I don't know [laughing]. There's like a thousand of us around. It's cool that Detroit is a broken-down fucked-up city, and we got all this shit coming out it.
Ramirez: Do you think Detroit should be more diversified or integrated?
Fiddler: It seems to be getting better.
Ramirez: Is your name really Amp [laughs]?
Fiddler: Anthony. It got changed on the playground ...
Ramirez: Amp, seriously, I think whether you are recognized or not, nothing has changed in Detroit. Everything is the same. All these bands coming out I wouldn't know your band and you wouldn't know mine if they weren't being pushed, not by [Detroit] history but by Europe. Right? We're not sitting here because this city decided we were good but because Europe decided we were good. I'm here because Europe decided that the White Stripes were good. The Detroit musical heritage is that there's always something good going on.
Fiddler: I never went to concerts when I was younger that had this kind of diversity. Never. It was always one thing or another.
Ramirez: I'm talking about smaller clubs.
Fiddler: I'm talking about clubs or whatever. We just never went to concerts that were mixed.
Ramirez: But you hear about how MC5 and Parliament did gigs together and Mitch Ryder did that shit left and right. I don't know this that well, but Fortune Records was on Third Avenue, and half its roster was white? Right?
Fiddler: That's right.
Ramirez: It was half white and half black. Those guys had to have known each other and that was in the '50s. I mean nothing really has changed except with awareness. And the weird part is that awareness has come from Europe. So in Detroit, what has changed?
Fiddler: But if you are just as successful here as in Europe, you have to give up the benefit of the doubt.
Ramirez: I'm just saying that yours, probably, and mine, the White Stripes, all of us, for the most part, the recognition came from Europe.
Fiddler: OK, that's true.
Ramirez: What got us was Rough Trade [records], not any American label.
I'm just saying that I think Detroit knows what it's doing [laughs], and that's to just leave the people alone and they'll put out good shit. Me, I would like to check some of this other [more diverse] shit out. But it's not about diversity or integration, it's not about coming together, it's about knowing where to find it. We're talking about bringing people together for diversity, I say diversity first! Integration later! [laughs].
Fiddler: And everybody gets their shit together amongst each other.
Ramirez: I don't know how to go check out a major hip-hop band without being brought to a major place. Where are the Lager Houses or Gold Dollars of hip-hop, of gospel pedal steel? I mean, don't you think that would be better than being forced together? Forcing is never good. I mean, look at the history of Detroit, segregation was good for the city to certain degree, because it forced people to stick together. When I talk to some of the old people they say the Black Bottom neighborhood was one of the coolest spots all these black clubs and nobody was afraid to go there. There was no hassle.
Fiddler: Integration just ruined that ...
Ramirez: Exactly. Now the city has gotten ugly. Boom, somebody gets shot ... ya know? We need communication.
Fiddler: You have to dig deep to find out what's really going on in this city.
Ramirez: As far as diversity goes, the problem with the Concert of Colors, you just don't know [she points to a Concert of Colors performance lineup] who these people are.
Fiddler: I don't think that's the problem. I believe Detroit is changing. We don't get a chance to get together. I think this is making a change, we are all in the same deal together. To me that's making some progress.
Ramirez: It's a problem because we don't know who these acts are.
Fiddler: And now we will. I like the fact that I can look at the schedule and say, "Who's this? Who's this? Who's this?" and then go and find out. Now I want to go check out the Detroit Cobras.
The Detroit Cobras perform Saturday, July 15, on the Diversity Stage at 8:30 p.m. Amp Fiddler appears Sunday, July 16, on the Diversity Stage at 10:15 p.m.
The Concert of Colors runs Friday, July 13 through Sunday, July 16, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. For a complete schedule, go to concertofcolors.com.
Brian J. Bowe
Mix master C
Using music and voice to unite cultures.