Fred Ho: Revolutionary warrior in life and music
“My music is imbued with the traditions of Asia, Africa and their respective diasporic hybrid forms,” Ho revealed. “It is new because it seeks to innovate and
not regurgitate; it is quintessentially American because only in America could ‘jazz’ and Asian forms hybridize; it is multicultural in that it is hybrid.”
Ho is a non-conformist when it comes to his musical style, much in the same way that he is non-conformist when it comes to his political and ideological
viewpoints. He once identified as a revolutionary yellow nationalist, then as a Marxist-Leninist (revolutionary socialist), and today as a revolutionary
matriarchal Luddite. For Ho, his political activism is explicitly linked to his music.
“The pain of White racism, White racist violence, domestic violence, of greater social oppression and exploitation, is something I have constantly faced as
a Yellow man in America,” Ho said. “I have been on a journey to understand the root source of this pain and to eliminate it, not only for myself, but [to] rid the
world of it.
“All [social] causes are interconnected and part of the overall struggle to end class rule by a minority of owners and controllers of resources and power. My
music is a force in that struggle. It seeks to catalyze a new consciousness that combats stultification (dumbing and stupidifying of people), racist, sexist,
homophobic bourgeois lies and myths, and celebrate the resistance and struggles of all.”
Ho was born in Palo Alto, California and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts. His first musical instrument was the flute because, according to him, “it was the
right thing to do for a bright, academically ambitious student.” Yet, as a teenager, Ho became increasingly bored with the flute and Western classical music.
He found jazz around the same time that his “consciousness as an Asian American and oppressed person was exploding.” It was a life-changing discovery for
“Jazz attracted me because it was so much more sophisticated and swinging than mainstream pop or rock music,” Ho explained. “As I delved deeper into
jazz, I was especially impacted by the vanguard, most radical expressions of the 1960 Black Arts Movement, the avatar of John Coltrane, and the so-called
As Ho’s interest in jazz developed into a deep passion, he found inspiration from drummer/composer Max Roach, saxophonist/composer Archie Sheep,
poet/professor Sonia Sanchez, and numerous Asian American activists including Stanley Kwong and Bob and Agnes Suzuki.
Unlike many aspiring musicians, Ho had literally no encouragement from his parents or teachers to pursue music.
“My father hated my interest in music,” Ho said. “He saw no practical value in it. When I decided to pursue music as a full-time professional, he absolutely
opposed my decision.”
Ho’s non-conformist spirit, however, would not be stifled.
“One theme in my life has been to do everything that is contrary to the mainstream; to take on the challenges, for example, of music and politics that no
one can or will do.”
Ho graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in Sociology (1979) and began forming relationships with African American and Asian musicians, performers and
political activists across the nation. In 1982, he founded the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and would later go on to create his own company; Big Red Media,
Ho has collaborated on numerous projects that fuse music, spoken word, martial arts, dance, and other elements to create multicultural, revolutionary
performances belonging in a genre of their very own. One of his latest, “Dragon Vs. Eagle: Enter the White Barbarians!” is described as “martial arts ballet/live
graphic novel/manga theater.” Premiering at the Apollo Theater and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, the performance fuses ancient
Chinese legend, Asian American popular culture (particularly Hong Kong cinema and Japanese anime), marital arts (Chinese Wu-shu and Kung Fu), and
other narrative elements. They are all tied together with Ho’s Afro Asian jazz.
Ho is also working on several new books, one of which details his roller coaster battle with cancer. He shared his work-in-progress, “The Diary of a Radical
Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level,” with Asian Wisconzine and proved that, like everything else in his life, his fight with
cancer is uniquely revolutionary.
On August 4, 2006, Ho was diagnosed with colon cancer. In his diary, he chronicles his daily fights and experiences with the disease as he undergoes
surgery to remove tumors, chemotherapy, and various other treatments and procedures. What he found during this fight was that “everyday is uncertain.” Yet
throughout this unfinished work, there are mantras like “it is not how hard you hit, it is how hard you get hit and keep moving forward.” Adversity didn’t change
the radical spirit that defines Ho as he charges forth in life.
“I am daily convinced that fighting cancer is a war.” Ho writes in his lucid and very personal diary. “It is a war fought on the medical/cellular level, it is a war
fought on the social-economic-political level against the U.S. HMO system of profiteering off healthcare, and it is a war fought on the spiritual-physical-
mental-manual level of yin-yang.
“I meet fellow warriors who are fighting cancer, and veterans who have been through it and live to tell their stories and share their lessons and strategy and
tactics. Some of these veterans are very militant, [they] lecture and drill me with questions and ‘things to think about;’ others simply listen. But in their hearts,
they all come from a place, despite all of our differences, that we have been at war and know it.”
After undergoing a barrage of invasive and toxic, yet necessary, treatments, Ho hoped that his war could come to an end. On Sept. 7, 2007, however,
another tumor was found in the same location as the first (colon) and then in November a second tumor was found in the rectum. Thus, began part two of Ho’s
Cancer war diaries. It has been a harrowing battle. In the spring of 2008, after a series of surgeries and experimental treatments, it was confirmed that the colo-
rectal tumor had returned with the possibility of another tumor in the pelvic area. Ho’s oncologist gave him a 25 percent chance of surviving.
And, yet, with brutal honesty, Ho continues to tell a story speckled with the waxing and waning of the varying emotions faced by a cancer warrior. He talks
about his enduring hope, his steadfast and inspiring friends, his life of music, his debilitating weariness and fatigue, and of his continued commitment to a
radical revolution. And every step of the way, Ho never wavers in his purpose for being here:
“In my war against cancer, it became crystal clear to me why I have been put on planet Earth: to create performance works that no one will or can create
and to compose music for musicians no one will or can write music for.”
To learn more about Fred Ho and his projects, visit bigredmediainc.com.
|Laura Salinger is a
freelance writer based in
by Laura Salinger
Acclaimed musician and unabashed sociopolitical activist Fred Ho is planning to
once again visit UW-Madison this fall as an Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence. Ho, an
Asian American jazz composer, writer, producer and artist, plans to teach the course
“Afro-Asian Multidisciplinary Performance Workshop: Revolutionary Sound and Word.”
The course will culminate with a November 22, 2008 evening performance, featuring
student performances and a performance by Ho’s Afro Asian Music Ensemble, at the
Wisconsin Union Theater.
For over three decades, Fred Ho has made a name for himself as a revolutionary
artist. His music has been described as working on the “edge of forms,” as Asian
American jazz fused with African elements, or simply as avant-garde jazz. Perhaps the
most telling description comes from the artist himself.
“Afro Asian New American Multicultural Music” is how Ho described his music in a
recent interview with Asian Wisconzine.