Revolutionary Music at Red Rooster: An Interview with Composer Fred Ho

By: Cyndi Amaya

Many words can be used to describe the incredible Fred Ho. Words like saxophonist, composer, band leader, writer, producer, matriarchal socialist and even aspiring Luddite. But even with all these descriptions, another word undoubtedly comes to mind when thinking of Fred: revolutionary! Between the 6 published books, over 20 released CDs, and countless distinction awards, Fred Ho continues to wow audiences and fans with soulful compositions and arrangements and all with an undying passion for life and justice.

Fred Ho's passion extends to not only showcasing ground-breaking music and musicians but also to bringing justice and respect to African and Asian cultures, even by avoiding the stereotypes attached to the word "jazz". Red Rooster Harlem is not only proud to present Fred Ho in its upcoming concerts, but also the music of Cal Massey who was such an influence on Fred and numerous other musicians. Be sure to check out Fred Ho's upcoming concerts in tribute to Cal Massey at the Red Rooster on Wednesday, February 22nd and Sunday, February 26th (for more information, click here); and in the meantime, check out our interview below with the man of the hour himself, Fred Ho!

What first peaked your interest in music?

I wanted to make music at age 14 because the revolutionary Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s catalyzed my consciousness in being Asian/Chinese American, and I wanted to make a revolutionary Afro-Asian New American Multicultural Music that would in turn catalyze the transformation of American society.

Is there a song in particular that made you fall in love with music or with playing?

While as a young person growing up in the ubiquitous milieu of American pop culture, I was influenced by Top 40, TV and movie music, but it was really the revolutionary music of Cal Massey, as introduced to me by Archie Shepp. Cal's music resonated most profoundly with me for its soulful melodies, sophisticated harmonies and searing rhythmic energy, along with such bad-ass titles as "The Damned Don't Cry," or "Hey God-Damn-it, Things Have Got to Change," or "The Cry of My People," which expressed a militant, in-your-face courage to speak radical truth. Tell me about your aversion to the word "jazz".

The word "jazz" is a racial slur.  While many theories exist as to its etymology, I am of the persuasion that believes it comes from the French verb, "jaser," which means "to chatter nonsensically," or gibberish.  The cultural nationalist arguments that it is an "African" word are less persuasive: what "African" language specifically? And how does it become a lingua franca when both the Africans enslaved in the U.S. are from so many diverse language groups, and over generations when English comes to supplant any specific memories of distinct African vocabulary.  Furthermore, if "jazz" is America's "classical music" as bourgeois proponents of American art asset, then why isn't Chinese classical music called "Chazz," or French classical music called "Frazz," or Russian classical music called "Razz"?  Fundamentally, it is an African American creative or art music.

Why was showcasing Cal Massey so important to you?

Cal Massey symbolizes the forgotten and overlooked revolutionary Black artist, a mentor and giant to the musicians, but not to the "jazz" establishment.  He did not kowtow to the establishment forces, and refused to be marginalized, so he self-produced his music.  He represents great artistry and irrepressible determination.  His opus, The Black Liberation Movement Suite, which we will feature at Red Rooster, stands among the greatest extended works of American 20th century music.

Why did you choose Red Rooster Harlem for your first concert performance of your Cal Massey tribute?

Red Rooster strives to become what I was hoping the "new" Apollo Theater would be become: a beacon for 21st century new American multi-cultural performance, a harbinger and avatar of the fresh and profoundly revolutionary, both local and committed to Harlem while being cosmopolitan and international in its greatness and innovation, a herald for the 21st century new Harlem Renaissance that extols the great African American cultural, intellectual and political continuum, at the same time, embracing and extending itself to the entirety of America's innovative diversity.  Red Rooster represents an entrepreneurial vision that I share, not imprisoned by the non-profit industrial complex, able to be bold, risk-taking, adventurous, and offer world-class cuisine and culture from a curatorial vision of genius and cultural authenticity and innovation.

What are some other great American composers that you get your inspiration from?

There are so many great composers I profoundly admired and have been inspired by, from Ellington to Monk to Sun Ra to Chinary Ung to Charles Wuorinen to Lalo Schiffrin to Eddie Palmieri to Tadao Sawai to Cal Massey to Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith to Derek Bermel to so many...they've all exalted my love for this art called music, and deeply enriched my soul.

Tell me how you use your music for African American and Asian American empowerment.

Africa and Asia are the two largest continents on this planet, with the two largest populations, with the two most ancient cultures, with the two largest and extensive diasporas.  An Afro-Asian world is much more the true world than a Euro-centric one.  My music seeks to unite and revolutionize both the Black and Yellow worlds simultaneously, and supplant "minority" identities with majority futurist imaginations.

After battling with cancer, do you have a new outlook on life and your music?

In the past 5 years, I have had 4 cancer tumors, 10 surgeries, 3 rounds of all chemo drugs made for colo-rectal cancer, and extreme alternative treatments.  I was supposed to be dead.  But here I am, not just still alive, but LIVING the impossible: pursuing my mission on this planet for whatever time I have left: to do the music and politics that no one else can or will do.

I have faced tremendous physical losses (including the loss of my right kidney, my bladder, my prostate, my rectum), many physical challenges (loss of strength, stamina, constant pain, massive scar tissue, etc.), but have acquired immense philosophical gains, including the loss of all fear, the ability to see beyond all limits and edges, and to be focused on only doing the impossible.

Red Rooster Harlem is proud to feature Fred Ho in his upcoming Cal Massey Tribute Concerts. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Fred Ho

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