Change the People

A recent book on musician Fred Ho reveals some starting points for a modern radical avant-garde.

Illustration by Anton Weflö

This article — which appears in our new print edition — was written and edited while the subject, revolutionary composer Fred Ho, was in the final stages of colorectal cancer. On the very day proofs was sent to the printers, Ho passed away. Though this review doesn’t reflect his passing, the author of has also written an obituary for Ho in Jacobin.

Fred Ho has been staring death in the face for almost a decade. In 2006, the prolific avant-garde saxophonist and composer was diagnosed with cancer. In late 2012, his doctors told him that the cancer had metastasized. A statement posted on his website in January of last year reads:

In 2012 we learned that the cancer had now reached stage 4b metastasis. A condition considered terminal.

But having optimized himself with a raw extreme food diet, spiritualizing himself with the elimination of ego, immersion in the love of so many friends, his family and supporters from around the planet, and coming to peace and carrying no baggage of any kind, Fred’s legacy is monumental and will be celebrated throughout 2013.

This seems an idiosyncratic way to greet the news that you may be dying, but to anyone who is familiar with Fred Ho’s art and music, it’s hard to imagine him taking it any other way. In Yellow Power, Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho, he is described with eccentric yet vivid labels, at once a revolutionary Marxist and a self-professed Luddite, an ecocentric matriarchal socialist, a devout atheist who, in his own words, is “trying to find a sound that will bring down the walls of Jericho.”

Summing up Ho’s corpus of work is likewise a slippery task. The music he composes and performs is instantly recognizable as jazz, yet it also incorporates elements far beyond most conceptions of the genre. Ho himself dislikes the very term “jazz,” describing it as a word with racist origins used to diminish the importance of non-white music.

Nor is his music confined to albums or performances in dark clubs; he has composed and collaborated on several large-scale operas that incorporate whole orchestras, dance, martial arts, and multimedia. He has authored a handful of books exploring the nexus of art and politics. He even designs his own clothes, seeking out fashions that are at once bold and completely original. To say Fred Ho defies convention is such an understatement that it’s almost an insult to the man.

It may go without saying that, despite being honored by contemporaries and his alma mater of Harvard, emissaries for the Big Three record labels aren’t banging down Ho’s door (not that he’s particularly bothered by that). Neoliberalism’s assault on the cultural resources of working and oppressed people, combined with the tight consolidation of the record industry, has left precious little space for discussions of aesthetic liberation. Notions of the avant-garde are perhaps more marginal than they’ve been in decades. Which, ironically, makes such discussions all the more urgent.

Further complicating matters is Elvis Costello’s adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” A book like Yellow Power, Yellow Soul, intended as a thorough examination of Ho’s work, naturally comes up against this sticky truth. Editors Tamara Roberts and Roger Buckley have taken a somewhat novel tack; the book includes not just essays on Ho’s compositions, operas and life, but anecdotes and ruminations from friends and collaborators; there are even a few poems inspired by the man peppered throughout. It’s an unorthodox tack to take, but ultimately effective. What one takes from the book is a sense not just of the importance of Ho’s work but of how a new, vital, politically engaged, even dialectical avant-garde art might look.

Returning to the Source

Ho’s mantra, repeated several times in one way or another throughout Yellow Power, is straightforward. Revolutionary music, as he sees it, must “go to the people, speak to the people, change the people.” It’s certainly simple, and yet it opens up a whole host of questions about how one reaches listeners on the almost subconscious levels in which art flourishes. How does one provide for an audience an art that breaks the mold while at the same time giving them something they want to hear?

Diane C. Fujino’s essay “Return to the Source” is a particularly illuminating starting point for this question, providing a view of Ho’s early ideas on art vis-à-vis the New Communist Movement of the 1970s and 1980s as well as mapping the limits of the New Left’s aesthetic practices. Fujino’s title is taken from a speech of the same name by liberation leader Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. She refers back to this speech in order to insist that Ho’s work is similarly informed by a desire to celebrate art forms popular among Asian and African-American masses in order to reassert their independence:

Cabral asserted that no colonizing force or oppressor can successfully dominate without destroying the culture of the oppressed peoples. Maintaining one’s culture, turning back toward one’s cultural heritage, or recreating a liberatory culture (because as Cabral emphasizes, no culture is fixed or flawless) in the face of colonialism is thus a revolutionary act. . . . Rooted in Cabral, Ho asserts, “Oppressed people don’t begin to fight their oppression until they resist the identity and historical image their oppressor makes of them.”

This is particularly prescient given Ho’s Chinese heritage. Asian Americans are constantly held up as a “model minority,” the racial category that proves racism doesn’t really exist and assimilation is the key to prosperity. Ho’s own upbringing, illustrated at several points in the book, provides a corrective to those myths.

Much of what Cabral lays out — particularly the rejection of cultural assimilation in favor of racial pride — is what attracted Ho to Maoism in the 1970s. While much of the Old Left was seen as having equivocated on questions of racism, the New Communist Movement saw it primarily as a question of national liberation. Inspired by struggles in the Third World, a great many artists from the Black Arts Movement — including the recently departed Amiri Baraka — made a turn toward Maoism because of the movement’s refusal to compromise on the issue.

In fact, both Baraka and Ho were for a time in the same organization: the League of Revolutionary Struggle. The League was the result of a fusion of a handful of Third Worldist and revolutionary nationalist organizations. These groups were prone to sweeping statements and demands on many issues, including art. At the same time, there can be little denying that many of their adherents and sympathizers produced compelling artistic expression. Some of them — Archie Shepp, for example — provided key innovations in the field of free and avant-garde jazz.

That the Asian-American movement isn’t as widely recognized as the Black and Brown Power movements is tragic in its own right; not least of all because the jazz created by Asian and Pacific-American artists as a complement to that movement could be equally magnetic. Just as BAM jazz artists often experimented with African polyrhythms and genres in order to emphasize the specifically non-Western nature of their music, so did Ho and other Asian artists explore ways to inject the sounds of their heritage as signifiers of cultural pride: Cantonese opera, Japanese tanka poetry, Filipino randallia music. But this approach also brought with it a severe shortcoming. Says Ho:

By and large, these attempts at a revolutionary theory of APA art and culture simply reiterated standard [Marxist-Leninist] views (mostly from Mao’s Yenan talks on literature, art and revolution) on the political and class nature of art, the propaganda value of popular forms, the question of aesthetic form and its dialectical, yet subordinate, relationship to revolutionary proletarian content. . . . The major limitation of the American Left’s theory and practice in cultural work has stemmed from the influence of socialist-realism (the Zhdanov policies of the Soviet Union), commonly regarded as agitprop. This theory regards art solely for its utilitarian value as a vehicle for propaganda.

It is worth unpacking this history, because Ho’s best work has sought to face the quandary of how art can attack the evils of capitalism — racism, sexual oppression, exploitation, and imperialism, not to mention what the culture industry does to music itself — without becoming forgettably propagandistic. What’s more, despite Ho’s urge to move beyond the narrow confines of effective Zhdanovism, the approach yielded an essential ingredient in his recent work.

The “Popular Avant-Garde”

Take, for example, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” from The Sweet Science Suite, Ho’s “choreographed musical tribute to Muhammad Ali,” which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past October. The composition is at once catchy and profoundly challenging, veering from orchestral jazz to the instrumentations and arrangements of Vietnamese folk music to fleeting moments of soul and funk that signify the Champ’s signature swagger. Obviously, Ho’s baritone sax plays a key role. Though there are no words, those with even slight knowledge of Ali will surely catch on to the theme of Afro-Asian solidarity embodied both in his well-known rebuke to the draft and in the music’s incorporation of sounds that at first listen don’t seem to mix.

Ho’s works — his operas, performances, and compositions — generally proceed from this logic. He is fond of calling himself a “popular avant-gardist,” employing an irreverent, almost deconstructionist ethos to material lifted from pop and folk cultures. His operas generously borrow from Asian fables, Japanese manga, and Bruce Lee films and invert them with aplomb. Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! uses the popular manga Lone Wolf and Cub as its starting point to tell a tale of individuals’ awareness of their place in history’s battles. His womanist opera Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors features Asian women performing African roles and vice versa in its attempt to embody Afro-Asian solidarity.

The most informative and engaging passages of Yellow Power, Yellow Soul are those that illustrate just how this approach sets itself apart. Ho’s outlook, as Kevin Fellezs posits in his essay, shares with Antonio Gramsci an understanding of “‘the popular’ as a locus of intersecting interests, rhetorics, and representations, a space of both conformity and opposition to elite culture.”

This interweaving of different genres is a far cry both from the static, Kipling-esque presentations of “world music” and the low-ball cynicism of postmodern pastiche. Arthur J. Sabatini, in his piece dissecting Ho’s operas, cites both Walter Benjamin and Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on the “carnivalesque” to describe the meaning of these artistic gestures. Broadly stated, this is a concept in which elements of society segregated from each other by social or legal practices come together to create new narratives that challenge the established order. And so it is with Ho’s bringing together of various aesthetics that convention tells us don’t work. It is not only the juxtapositions that create the interest, but the new kinds of instinctive consciousness that can potentially spring from them.

The Need for Utopia

Perhaps one of the more controversial choices on the part of the editors and writers is to include discussions of Ho’s lifestyle — his vow to live on $15,000 a year, the “extreme raw diet” mentioned above — in Yellow Power, Yellow Soul. Some of the more anecdotal contributions to the book, from friends and collaborators like Ruth Margraff, Magdalena Gómez, and Kalamu ya Salaam, stray into similarly personal waters, examining his interactions with fellow artists and, fleetingly, some of the darker corners of his personality.

This may at first glance seem a misstep, and admittedly these sections can be repetitive. An interesting supposition arises from the discussion of Ho’s lifestyle, however: namely that as an artist, it’s his job to underscore the ways in which the personal is political.

And indeed, Ho’s artistic transgressions in this light — his gender-bending costumes, his juxtaposition of characters and musical modes that seem disparate — take on an enlightening air if we keep in mind that capitalism has shaped literally all aspects of our lives. Bill Mullen’s piece, “In Fred Ho’s Body of Work,” summarizes just such a holistic outlook. Framing Ho’s integration of the personal and political through his art with a quote from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Mullen reminds us of just how profoundly commodification and production for profit have warped our connections with nature, with sexuality, with our very sense of what it means to be human. While it may not be constructive to investigate our own lifestyles in, say, a strike committee or a tenants’ organization, art is where we may ask questions that open the door to other, more fulfilling ways of being, free from the strictures of a system that views us and our labor as disposable.

Art may in fact be one of the only methods through which we can ask such questions of spiritual and ontological vocation in a fruitful and productive way. In the words of Angela Davis, quoted by Fellesz in his essay:

Art is a form of social consciousness — a special form of social consciousness that can potentially awaken an urge in those affected by it to creatively transform their oppressive environments. Art can function as a sensitizer and a catalyst, propelling people toward involvement in organized movements seeking to effect radical social change.

There will surely be those who read this and dismiss it as utopian pretense. But one of the contemporary American left’s greatest weaknesses is its skittishness regarding the concept of utopia. The ways in which neoliberalism has cut us off from the belief that humans can collectively build a better world goes hand in hand with the sidelining and co-optation of the avant-garde. It’s hardly a coincidence that these projects have been written off as fanciful and elitist.

This is precisely what makes Yellow Power, Yellow Soul such an edifying book. There is naturally no substitute for actually listening to Fred Ho’s music and seeing his productions. It is these compositions that inspire, not the descriptions of them. That this collection gets closer than most to bridging that gap speaks to its strengths. Though he has been tragically unsung, Ho’s work is a connection to the vibrant and wonderful tradition of the radical imagination. However much longer he may be for this world, there can be little doubt that he’s left important lessons for a nascent radical culture to grab hold of.