Revolutionary Music: By Way of Rhetoric or Craft?

Mike Silverton

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

The subject of this pejorative is saxophonist-composer Fred Ho, a neighbor. We live on the same block in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, which, if one includes environs, houses every third jazz player in the known universe. I’d been living here a dog’s age before I made the discovery. When conversion to condos of a pair of factory buildings on the south side of our street is completed, Fred and I will be colliding with millionaires. What began its ascent from a scruffy industrial patch abutting brownstone town houses now betokens the lengths to which yuppification is willing to go in quest of urban space.

Fred and I are, or better, have been on cordial speaking terms. He came up to my place a few years back, at my invitation, to hear my sound system, which he seemed to like. (It’s since gone though many ameliorative changes.) I enjoy for my part the sight of Fred en route in the delightfully festive outfits he favors. One look says it: No shrinking violet, he! Fred’s a big, sturdy fellow who doesn’t so much walk as forge ahead with a world-beating stride. I like the guy. What I find disturbing is the direction he’s taken.

I must disqualify myself from comment on what I’ve heard on recording of the kind of jazz Fred composes and performs. It’s an area in which I’ve little interest and even less understanding. Suffice that his playing suggests stellar chops. What I do feel obliged to comment on is the intemperate rhetoric in which Fred wraps his music. We tend to think of racism and bigotry in terms more lopsided than most of us care to admit. Almost by definition, bigots and racists populate the dominant group: in the USA, whites over blacks, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians, etc.; Christians over Jews, Moslems, etc.; heterosexuals over homosexuals, etc., etc. Conversely, when a “minority” rails against the “majority” in terms however harsh, crude or obscene, we feel disinclined to condemn this conduct as racist. We see it rather as self-expression and, on these grounds, excusable and perhaps even commendable. The old British empire’s “white man’s burden” dilutes in time and space to the liberal’s burden. One recalls African-American demands for reparations back in those giddy, flower-child days for the sins of slave owners so long dead they didn’t even smell (as an expression of duration my father never tired of). One also recalls a number of white liberals in agreement with the spirit of these demands, if not quite the out-of-pocket substance.

That spirit of anger survives, it appears. Fred Ho has thrown in his lot with the broad-band aggrieved — women, people of color, homosexuals, the disgruntled and disenfranchised of every conceivable scope, shape and stripe — in terms so unremittingly blatant and trite, I thought them at first a sly send-up. On further reflection, I thought perhaps I detected an attention-seeking shtick, something along the lines of Liberace’s wardrobe. A conversation with a musician who knows Fred better than I tells me that the man’s views are genuine. So much the worse. Not for Fred’s humanitarian fervor, but rather for the authoritarian ferocity in which it’s packaged. ’Twould bring a blush to a Stalinist’s cheek.

In thinking about doing this piece, I sought guidance. My interlocutor advised against, his argument, that to call attention to what disturbs me will only further publicize what I wish would go away. In truth, Fred needs little help from me in the celebrity department. In the midst of keying in these remarks, I discovered in the September, 1999 Harper’s Magazine in Readings, page 14, an illustrated dingbat font, The Black Panther 2000, designed by Paul Chan “to accompany All Power to the People, a multimedia jazz ballet by activist Fred Ho. The ballet was performed last month at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.” Fred has had at least one work performed in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with another forthcoming in The Cooper Union in downtown Manhattan.

” … by activist Fred Ho.” The air is awash in euphemism. Hobos, bums and derelicts no longer exist; homeless, rather. The impaired are this or that way challenged. The unintended departed become collateral damage. A militant left-winger is an activist, as a further, revealing reflection of our de facto definition of bigotry, since the term is peculiarly one-sided. Extremists on the right — religious fundamentalists, militias, the Klan, neo-Nazis — are never referred to as activists. In this the left has always enjoyed a free ride.

As to the nuts and bolts of Ho’s Weltanschauung: we go a few years back to a mailing I received headed HERSTORY, an event in which Fred took part as a principal. The flyer made it clear that this was a feminist performance of a militant complexion. Our relations down-shifted from cheery greeting to tentative nod after I fired off a note to our subject and the woman (if memory serves) who shared top billing advising them both that herstory, a clumsy-cute, subliterate usage, diminishes the language, inasmuch as history has nothing to do with the Old English his, but rather is a cousin to the French histoire out of the Latin historia. I wondered at the time what sort of mischief Fred was getting into. A couple of CDs answer the question. My guess is, there are many more of these about. Fred’s discography is large. I’m aware only of this pair.

The first, Rova / The Works, Volume 2, is on Giovanni Bonandrini’s most excellent Black Saint label. The group is the Rova Saxophone Quartet [120186-2]. Fred’s contribution is entitled Beyond Columbus and Capitalism. He names one of four sections “The New World Odor: The Huge Farts of Red Meat-Eating Imperialists Foul the Earth.” Presumably the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas were all peace-loving vegetarians whose southerly backdraughts smelled of clove and cinnamon. Dead strangers’ farts I cannot attest to; however, I have it on good authority that gentle and pacific these indigenes were not, but never mind scholarship, we’ve other axes to grind and, to judge from the vehemence of Fred’s political boilerplate, for deployment on the necks of class enemies. (Speaking of locals, native means born in whatever place — a native of the Bronx. I am therefore a native American, though not a Native American.)

“My music is written and performed for the people’s struggle.” Okay, fine — not my cup of borsch, but then, I don’t suggest that everything should be. Further along in Fred’s notes to this Rova release, we learn that he avoids engagements or grants from “dominant, hegemonic centers,” for to do so would result in “co-optation, deracination and depoliticization.” The word is co-option, but never mind. We pause at deracination. Uprooted from what, our subject’s upmarket, co-op pad? If the man is so publicly concerned about where his loyalties lie, why are his roots not intermingling with those of the downtrodden in fact as well as spirit? One finds the folk for whom Fred strives in assorted profusion in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Sunset Park, Redhook, Bedford-Stuyvestant, Alphabet City in the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Borough Park, etc., etc., all close to hand, no few within walking distance. At worst, a short subway hop. And then we come upon this: “What is the opposite of this brutal, white supremacist, Eurocentric, patriarchal, capitalist system? I say: multicultural, internationalist, matriarchal socialism!” Multicultural and internationalist I can understand. For the left, these are ideals. But what are we to make of matriarchal? Two recent female leaders spring to mind: Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, a Ronald Reagan conservative absent a penis, and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, generally seen as corrupt and inept. As to a clear record of a matriarchy in history, is there one, or does it exist in wish-fulfillment? Matrilineal societies we know about, but this is far from synonymous with matriarchal. Fred ends his comments with VIVA CUBA! VIVA SOCIALISM! VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN! If our jackhammer proselytizer proposes to shift into Spanish, he ought to have begun his exhortations with inverted exclamation points and spelled it el socialismo.

A more recent release is entitled FRED HO and the AFRO ASIAN MUSIC ENSEMBLE / TURN PAIN INTO POWER [OO DISCS OO30, co-produced by Fred Ho and Joseph Celli]. The relatively inoffensive notes by and large quote other writers, among them a most eloquent Esther Iverem (Essay to X, 1991). We direct our attention rather to the graphic side of the CD itself, consisting at its center of a portrait of Columbus under the customary slash-across-a-circle sign, as in No Smoking. Starting at the outer ring, ABOLISH COLUMBUS DAY / NO MORE GENOCIDE! / TURN PAIN INTO POWER! / FRED HO and the AFRO ASIAN MUSIC ENSEMBLE / AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT OF COLORADO.

And so on and on. Fred’s coarse agitprop accomplishes little of value. And yes, one continues to wonder about motives. To judge from his tone, Fred’s at least as interested in confrontation as in humanity’s welfare. It should be obvious at the end of a remarkably bloody century that contempt for one’s fellow creature is scarcely the preserve of funky-fart capitalists. We’ve only to remind ourselves of Comrade Stalin’s body count, or Chairman Mao’s, or Pol Pot’s, or Idi Amin’s, all of them men of the Left. Always, of course, for some distantly utopian Good: can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. To return to the evils of white supremacy and genocide, those Tutsi-annihilating Hutus, how white were they? Or is that particular slaughter traceable to the mess in which colonialists left Africa? Maybe improper toilet training can account for the Europeans’ bad behavior. Do but recall those culture-snuffing farts. There’s no end to this chain of fetid culpability!

Still, one has to admire the courage it requires to paint oneself into so tight a corner. Who knows, perhaps it is I who’s out of step. Maybe this kind of thing actually draws the larger crowd. Here’s hoping not.

Postscript. My memory fails me (again). The mailing to which I objected was entitled SHEROES, as in heroes. It’s the he-she bit, but nothing to do, however, with history-herstory. The spirit of my criticism remains. It’s a gross misstatement withal, for which I apologize.