Composer, saxophonist, author
Jazz musician and composer Fred Ho has combined revolutionary ideology, modern jazz experiments, and popular forms in an accessible fusion that has won him a growing audience among jazz and theater devotees in the United States and around the world. Ho, a bass saxophonist and composer, has performed in conventional jazz ensembles. But he has also become well known for stage works such as Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, which employ jazz, popular music, Chinese opera, and martial arts in multimedia theater fusions. Ho is a professed Marxist-Leninist, and his aims are explicitly political. "I've never separated music from the activism of social change and the struggle to liberate oppressed people," he told Eunnie Park of New Jersey's Bergen County Record. "So my musical-political life has been about finding all forms of liberation."
Ho was born Fred Wei-han Houn in Palo Alto, California, in 1957. He adopted the name Ho in the 1980s, in the early stages of his musical career. Ho's father was a Chinese-born political science professor in the early stages of his career, and the family had to move several times when he got jobs at different institutions. Finally, when Ho was six, they settled in Amherst, Massachusetts. Even in that cosmopolitan college town, Ho experienced discrimination from teachers and classmates no matter how hard he tried to fit in. Ho's father also dealt with discrimination, but took it out on his family in the form of physical abuse. "One of my first insurrections," Ho told Nell Porter Brown of Harvard Magazine, "was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes."
One positive force in Ho's life was the baritone saxophone, which he initially took up because it was one of the few instruments left unselected by the other members of his high school music class. With classmates like the sons of jazz musicians Archie Shepp and Max Roach, both of whom lived in Amherst at the time, Ho quickly learned to produce edgy, exciting sounds. With revolutionary ideas in the air on nearby college campuses, Ho abandoned his efforts to fit in and began to develop a radical Chinese-American identity. He also joined the Nation of Islam. Still unsure of what he wanted to do, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was trained as a hand-to-hand combat specialist but suffered a dishonorable discharge after an altercation with a superior officer, brought on by the officer's use of racial slurs. Ho later successfully contested the dishonorable discharge.
Enrolling at Harvard University, Ho studied sociology and joined the school's jazz band as well as a host of activist student organizations. The school "taught me by negative example and changed me by convincing me of what I didn't want to become: a functionary or manager in the system…. part of the elite," he told Brown. "And I developed a disdain for the mainstream culture I considered to be a polluted pond, a pond of racism, sexism, homophobia, and capitalist commodified culture—so I can imagine an ocean of possibilities and not have to settle for any stream." Ho joined I Wor Kuen, an Asian-American group modeled on the radical Black Panthers, but later left the organization.
Two years after receiving his degree from Harvard in 1979, Ho moved to Brooklyn, New York. His life involved a rejection of American commercial culture on various levels. He has never owned a car, and he has even designed and made the clothing he wears. The most important focus in his life became music, which he had partly set aside during his Harvard years. Ho performed with Shepp, Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz musicians (although he rejected the use of the term "jazz," believing that it had roots in derogatory white usage), but soon he had ambitions of leading a group that played his own compositions. A key influence was bassist Charles Mingus, who like Ho realized an original musical vision both through composition and through innovative use of a bass instrument. The boundary-breaking jazz of saxophonist John Coltrane was another major influence, as were the large ensemble tapestries of ethnic experience penned by bandleader Duke Ellington. Ho formed the Asian American Art Ensemble and then, in 1982, the Afro Asian Music Ensemble.
As the name of the latter group implied, Ho sought to fuse African-American musical techniques with Asian ideas and political themes. Several albums released by the group in the late 1980s and early 1990s won widespread acclaim: two of them, Tomorrow Is Now! (1986) and We Refuse to Be Used and Abused (1989), were later selected by New York's influential Village Voice for its list of 1980s Choice Albums of the Decade, and Bamboo That Snaps Back was named Critics' Choice Album of the Year by Coda magazine in 1987.
In 1990 Ho formed another group, the Monkey Ensemble. This group was connected with a Monkey Trilogy he wrote for the stage, featuring a trickster-like monkey and based on a sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Ho's interest in theatrical works began with a 1986 score he wrote for a work by Asian-American playwright Genny Lim. His bilingual A Chinaman's Chance: An Afro Asian Opera (1989) has been called the first contemporary Chinese-American opera; it had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His 1991 multimedia piece Turn Pain into Power! also combined Chinese and English texts. But the work that did most to broaden Ho's name recognition beyond New York and the West Coast was Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America (1995), which he described on the website of his Big Red Media company as a "Martial Arts Ballet and Music/Theater Epic." Ho hired a scriptwriter, a director, a choreographer, lighting and costume designers, and a multiethnic cast for a production that appeared around the United States over the next decade and spawned two sequels. Voice of the Dragon attracted fans from beyond political and contemporary music circles, including young viewers drawn by the martial arts element. The show's 2002–03 tour was booked by Columbia Artists Management, a major force in classical music. The work, Ho told Fred Crafts of the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard, "reflects my influences both from the vast 20th-century tradition of African American music, with composers like Ellington, Basie, Coltrane, Mingus, along with some popular musical influences and, of course, Chinese folk and theater music as well."
Even a widely circulated production like Voice of the Dragon did not turn profits in the amount required to support even Ho's modest lifestyle. Instead, Ho turned to a combination of fellowships (including six from the Rockefeller Foundation and two from the National Endowment for the Arts), scholarly residencies and research posts, and lectures delivered at colleges and universities, meetings of arts organizations, and stores. Ho also wrote articles about his own music and that of other creative figures, and one article, published in the Movement Research Journal in 1996, was called "How to Sell But Not Sell Out: Some Personal Lessons from Making a Career as a Subversive and Radical Performing Artist." Profits he realized were often plowed back into his production and publishing enterprises. Ho edited several books of writings about revolutionary music, one of which, Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, won an American Book Award in 1996. A collection of Ho's articles, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice, was issued by the University of Minnesota Press in 2006.
By that time Ho had become a well-established creative figure with several more major productions under his belt—but with no mellowing in his attitude. He continued to record, both on his own and as part of the Brooklyn Sax Quartet, which he co-founded in 1997. Sometimes Ho was criticized as heavy-handed in his politics. Ho's 2000 opera, Warrior Sisters, was set during China's Boxer Rebellion but featured action encompassing the oppression of women on several continents. "All in all," wrote Jon Pareles of the New York Times, "the opera seems to come out of some alternative reality: an America with cultural commissars stipulating politically correct fables."
For the Record …
Formed Asian American Art Ensemble, 1981; formed Afro Asian Music Ensemble, 1982; released recordings as leader, 1986– opera A Chinaman's Chance performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1989; oratorio Turn Pain into Power! performed at Brooklyn Art and Culture Association, 1991; composed multimedia work Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, 1995 (sequels, 2002, 2005); composed Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors, 2000; composed Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, 2005; composed The Struggle for a New World Suite, 2007.
Awards: Village Voice newspaper, Choice Albums of the Decade [1980s], for Tomorrow Is Now! and We Refuse to Be Used and Abused; University of Massachusetts, 17th Annual Black Musicians Conference, Duke Ellington Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award, 1988; Rockefeller Foundation grants, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005; National Endowment for the Arts, Music Composition Fellowship, 1993, Opera-Musical Theater Fellowship, 1994; American Book Award, for Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, 1996; McKnight Fellowship, 2000.
Addresses: Home—443 12th St., 1H, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Website—:http://www.bigredmediainc.com.
However, Ho's reputation was steadily on the rise. Over time he broadened his work to include feminist and Latino-oriented themes, and in 2005 he formed a new group, Caliente! Circle Around the Sun, with poets Magdalena Gomez and Raul Salinas. He was the subject of studies in several books, including Bill Mullen's Afro-Orientalism and Deborah Wong's Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. As of late 2006, new projects on Ho's schedule included the Struggle for a New World Suite, to be performed at Temple University in Philadelphia. Continuing to blaze a path of his own, Fred Ho was an artist who challenged the status quo. Art, he told Harvard Magazine, "is about risk-taking on a maximum level where everything is put on the table—your reputation, your career, your credibility, and your own personal money." A collection of Fred Ho materials is housed in the library at the University of Connecticut.
Tomorrow Is Now!, Soul Note, 1986.
Bamboo That Snaps Back, Finnadar/Atlantic, 1987.
A Song for Mamong, AsianImprov, 1988.
We Refuse to Be Used and Abused, Soul Note, 1989.
The Underground Railroad to My Heart, Soul Note, 1994.
Monkey: Part One, Koch Jazz, 1996.
Monkey: Part Two, Koch Jazz, 1997.
Turn Pain into Power!, O.O. Discs, 1997.
Yes Means Yes,, No Means No, Whatever She Says, Wherever She Goes!, Koch Jazz, 1998.
Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors, Koch Jazz, 1999.
Night Vision: A Third to First World Vampyre Opera (book with double CD), Autonomedia and Big Red Media, Inc., 1999.
The Way of the Saxophone, Innova and Big Red Media, 2000.
Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, Innova and Big Red Media, 2001.
The Black Panther Suite: All Power to the People! (DVD), Innova/Big Red Media, 2003.
(With Raul Salinas) Red Arc: A Call for Liberacion, Wings Press, 2005.
Voice of the Dragon 2: Shaolin Secret Stories, forthcoming.
Selected stage presentations
A Chinaman's Chance: An Afro Asian Opera, 1989.
Turn Pain into Power!, 1991.
The White Peril: Too Wrong for Too Long!, 1994.
The Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey!, 1995, 1997.
Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, 1995.
Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors, 2000.
Voice of the Dragon 2: Shaolin Secret Stories, 2002.
Deadly She-Wolf at Armageddon!, 2005.
Dragon Versus Eagle! (Enter the White Barbarians: Voice of the Dragon 3), 2005 (premiere slated for 2008).
(co-editor, with Ron Sakolsky) Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, Autonomedia/Semio text, 1995.
Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America, AK Press, 2000.
(co-editor, with Bill V. Mullen) AFRO-ASIA: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African and Asian Americans, Duke University Press, 2006.
Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: Collected Political, Cultural and Creative Writings by Fred Ho, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Albuquerque Journal, April 1, 2005, p. 13.
New York Times, November 28, 1997; December 2, 2000, p. A25; January 10, 2004, p. B21.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 17, 2003, p. 33.
Register-Guard (Eugene, OR), February 9, 2003, p. L3.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 24, 2001, p. 21.
"Biography," Fred Ho papers collection, University of Connecticut, http://www.lib.uconn.edu/online/research/speclib/ASC/findaids/HO/MSS19990036.html (November 28, 2006).
Brown, Nell Porter, "Chords of Revolution: A Jazz Musician Thrives in Brooklyn," Harvard Magazine, http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/050562.html (November 28, 2006).
"Fred Ho," http://www.kalvos.org/hofred.html (November 28, 2006).
"Fred Ho resumé," Big Red Media, Inc., http://www.bigredmedia.com/FredHoResume.html (November 28, 2006).
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