A city in transit.
From the time ancient tribes were sharing stories through rhythm, music has been our most elemental form of communication, and the one true universal language.
Musician Sean Blackman grew up surrounded by that language and has devoted his life to mastering it.
“My mother was really into the arts and culture and music and everything that comes with it. In the 50s, she worked for Westbound Records — they released all the Funkadelic albums — so she had an incredible record collection of all the greats…Etta, Ella, Billie, Otis, Coltrane, Miles, Charlie… And she's an Armenian girl, so my youth was filled with those albums, and going to the Armenian Church and parties and dancing to live Armenian bands.”
He fell hopelessly in love with music and immersed himself withthe eclectic sounds that inspired him.
“I got a guitar for my 12th birthday. I was heavy into Sabbath, Iron Maiden and early AC/DC. I had my skull earring and shaggy hair — I was rocking out. Then, when I was 19 or 20, I started listening to a Flamenco album my mother had given me, and noticed it had all the same qualities I loved about rock music. So, I started spending all my time and money at local record stores, exploring all these different world-genres… Music from India… France… The Middle East…Africa… South America, and so on.”
Those sounds soon moved him to begin crafting some of his own.
“In American music, you mostly hear guitar, bass, keys, strings, horns, drums — maybe a pair of congas... But I started hearing all these other instruments. I didn't even know what they’re called, but those sounds got in my head. So, I started composing songs, and your next step after composing is orchestration. Most people write songs on the piano or guitar, conceptualize parts for other instruments in their head, then seek out musicians who play those instruments to record or perform.”
Things weren’t quite so straightforward for Blackman, though.
“In my head, I was hearing these more non-native instruments: Indian harmonium with a West African harp… Brazilian berimbau… Somebody singing in French… Some Armenian percussion… All in one song. So, I had to find musicians who played those instruments.”
To his surprise, he didn’t have to look far.
“I started finding them right here in Metro Detroit. And they weren’t just OK — they were virtuosos. Even today, I’m still finding these folks and it's always the same… I'm standing somewhere with my jaw gaping open, blown away by their talent, and I ask the same question: ‘How long have you been here?’”
Still, despite the city’s trove of talent, most Detroiters would be hard-pressed to see these artists performing publicly.
“They play private parties, jam in someone's basement, or maybe perform if someone gets married, but typically, the public isn’t invited. It's not listed in the Metro Times or the Free Press… It's not listed anywhere! You might see a poster in the vestibule of your favorite Indian restaurant, but it's written in their language, so the only thing you can read is the date… You're not going to that, and I bet even if you could read it you’re still not going to that.”
But bringing his ambitious musical ideas to life meant finding a way into those circles and recruiting musicians to join forces with him.
“So, I started gathering all these musicians, but when we got together, it wasn’t just, “Hi, my name is Sean, I need you here at this time and I need you to play this… OK, thanks, bye.” No, they became my friends. We built these deep bonds. I’m meeting their family, I’m eating with them, I'm learning about their culture, how they were raised, and it’s all so different… Like, in West Africa, it's rude for two guys to look each other in the eye when they first meet — here in Detroit, it's rude if you don't.”
As his network grew, so did his passion for bringing these different cultures together through music — and that’s precisely what inspired In Transit Detroit.
“In Transit Detroit is a world music concert series I started in 2016 at the Garden Theater. Each month, we choose one country to highlight, and I mix that country’s music with a Detroit rhythm section to create ‘China-Detroit fusion,’ ‘Argentina-Detroit fusion,’ ‘Spain-Detroit fusion,’ and so on. It’s incredible… I want it to become part of the Detroit community, because we have all these musicians from around the world living in Detroit, but they don’t have a public platform to perform.”
Blackman says the performances are incredibly powerful in breaking down barriers between seemingly disparate cultures.
“When I'm first introducing these folks at rehearsal, they're just head nodding each other from across the room; they’re not even shaking hands, they're just kind of like, ‘what is happening here?’ But the end of the show they're hugging, and I see them backstage with their phones out, exchanging phone numbers. Then a week later I see them making friends on Facebook, and then weeks after that I see them interacting independently from me and starting to work together. It gives me chills.”
That impact extends beyond the musicians on stage, though.
“I grew up here and always heard that Metro Detroit is a melting pot, and it is to an extent. We have many different cultures living here, but they tend to stick to their own conversation, so I don't see that melting part. That’s why In Transit Detroit builds bridges between cultures through the Performing Arts. It's a super cool thing to see — I look out in the crowd and I see all these different cultures hanging out, dancing together, I think, ‘wow this is so much bigger than me now…’ It’s about building community.”
Today, he also shares his passion for this work with Metro Detroit youth, exposing them to music they are unlikely to find on their own, and offering a powerful lesson on how art and music can transcend the differences that sometimes divide us.
“I have a collection of instruments from over 15 countries that I bring to schools, and I take students through the music of 10 to 12 countries in forty-five minutes. They love it. I’ll pick up an African instrument, for example, and there will be an African-American kid in the audience. Then, when I open up for Q&A, he says, ‘my uncle plays that instrument.’ And when I hear that, it just melts my heart because when that kid goes back to class, he can say, ‘remember that funny guy on stage with all those instruments? That one… That was from my country.’ It gives him a chance to talk about his culture without feeling weird… And that’s pretty cool. I love doing it, because I believe that if I can get kids to open their eyes to something new, maybe it will trigger something special for them like it did for me.”