This dynamic collection explores the life, work, and persona of saxophonist Fred Ho, an unabashedly revolutionary artist whose illuminating and daring work redefines the relationship between art and politics. Scholars, artists, and friends give their unique takes on Ho's career, articulating his artistic contributions, their joint projects, and personal stories. Exploring his musical and theatrical work, his political theory and activism, and his personal life as it relates to politics, Yellow Power, Yellow Soul offers an intimate appreciation of Fred Ho's irrepressible and truly original creative spirit. Contributors are Roger N. Buckley, Peggy Myo-Young Choy, Jayne Cortez, Kevin Fellezs, Diane C. Fujino, Magdalena Gómez, Richard Hamasaki, Esther Iverem, Robert Kocik, Genny Lim, Ruth Margraff, Bill V. Mullen, Tamara Roberts, Arthur J. Sabatini, Kalamu ya Salaam, Miyoshi Smith, Arthur Song, and Salim Washington.
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YELLOW POWER YELLOW SOUL
THE RADICAL ART OF FRED HO
By Roger N. Buckley, Tamara Roberts
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Enter the Voice of the Dragon
Fred Ho, Bruce Lee, and the Popular Avant-Garde
I am trying to create a new American opera that appeals to today's youth—particularly inner city youth—who think of opera as something conservative and exclusionary [...] I at least want my artistic/theatrical concept to be more exciting and captivating, and for the martial arts to demolish the aesthetics of grade-B action films, boring Broadway and moribund modern dance.
—FRED HO, "Beyond Asian American Jazz"
I believe that I have a role [...] the audience needs to be educated and the one to educate them has to be somebody who is responsible. We are dealing with the masses and we have to create something that will get through to them. We have to educate them step by step.
—BRUCE LEE, Words of the Dragon
Fred Ho's Journey beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey (1996) is an "Afro Asian score for ballet," an eclectic brew of high and low culture, as well as Afrodiasporic and Asian American cultural elements. Journey beyond the West is a reinterpretation of popular Chinese Monkey King tales, a figure who protects the lowly and oppressed from evil spirits and the caprices of the gods. As Susan Asai notes, "Within the socialist framework of Ho's politics, The Monkey King can be thought of as the equivalent of a working-class hero defying the capitalist, bourgeois forces that oppress the masses." Through all of his works Ho has built an aesthetic informed by political histories as well as his insistence on the efficacy of music to serve as a revolutionary tool of "the people."
It is not only Chinese mythology that inspires him. In the composition, "Monkey Decides to Return Home 'To Right the Great Wrongs'" from Journey, Ho's voicings for the horns recall Chinese opera themes, assisted in no small part by the use of instrumentation borrowed from Chinese operatic ensembles. Another work, Voice of the Dragon: Once upon a Time in Chinese America (1997), is a reinvention of ancient Chinese myths, the Chinese martial-arts tradition and its popular-culture form, the martial-arts action film, as well as Asian and Afrodiasporic musical influences Ho describes as "Afro-Asian new American multicultural music." We can hear this merging of political acumen and musical hybridity throughout his work.
His work is thus positioned in "already hybrid" spaces complicated by his use of elements gleaned from popular culture. Understanding his own work as operating within a tradition he terms the "popular avant-garde," his use of popular-culture elements is both aesthetic strategy and political advocacy. Defining the popular avant-garde as an aesthetic program dedicated to "elevating standards, promoting the necessity and importance of experimentation but at the same time being rooted, grounded and vibrantly connected to the people," Ho castigates accessibility in art as a needless "dumbing down, a pandering" to popular audiences. He is also wary of various connotations of "avant-garde" because "it can be both purveyor of change or perpetuator of privilege, solipsism and snobbish elitism [particularly if it implies] the completely anti-political position of l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake, which I and others would assert, is political by asserting the autonomy of art and ideas as standing above society and thereby tacit acquiescence and accommodation to the status quo)."
While Ho's work operates within a context of an historical Asian American jazz movement and its set of political commitments, I pursue a slightly different tack in this chapter, focusing on Ho's articulation of a popular avant-garde. A key element of his aesthetic that has been largely overlooked is the martial-arts film and, in particular, the philosophical texts (films and writings) of actor Bruce Lee as a way of representing Asian American struggles for recognition, thinking about Asian American sources of spiritual knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities, and as an example of the contradictory impulses Ho gathers together in the creation of the popular avant-garde.
In ways similar to the journey hua pen narratives took to become valorized as literati cultural production, Ho appropriates the work of Bruce Lee and the marital-arts action-film genre in the creation of his popular avant-garde in order to educate his audiences, provide models of revolutionary and liberatory political action, and to give voice to counterhegemonic perspectives. Because engendering a revolutionary consciousness in his audiences remains Ho's primary goal, not merely entertaining them with high-concept spectacle (though he assuredly accomplishes that, as well), his creative work remains rooted in a dialectics of education and entertainment, popularity and populism, and tradition and innovation. Through his engagement of the martial arts action film genre, Ho also taps into a longer historical continuum that stretches back to Ming era literature. As Bruce Lee asserted, "In fact tradition is nothing but a formula laid down by experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula ... box-office success is a formula, but will I forget my food and sleep for this dead formula? I, Bruce Lee, am a man who never follows those fearful formulas." Fred Ho is also a man who has chosen to "not forget his food and sleep for a dead formula," forging instead his own unique aesthetic.
Music, Manga ...
Antonio Gramsci understood "the popular" as a locus of intersecting interests, rhetorics, and representations, a space of both conformity and opposition to elite culture. Similarly recognizing popular culture's hybrid nature, yielding both conservative as well as radical energies, Ho channels his creativity into recognizable forms he can then implode from within, challenging audiences' expectations even as they are entertained. Because Ho's extravagant creativity and unapologetic embrace of consumer cultural signs occurs in tandem with his stated agenda of revolutionary creative production, he interrogates popular culture's commodification of creative work through a provocative set of inquiries into the meanings of various idioms, traditions and cultural hierarchies, especially as he points to "the people" for their tastes and legitimation. For example, Ho's admiration for Lone Wolf and Cub, a manga (Japanese comic book) and the movie series it inspired, is not only to participate in otaku (manga and anime fan) culture but is also an expression of his political and cultural solidarity with popular audiences.
Ho has written about his idea of revolutionary art and its relation to popular culture, setting a four-point agenda—speak to the people, go to the people, involve the people, and change the people—and emphasizing the need to engage popular audiences, not as an effort to merchandise his art more effectively or to lessen the political impact of his art, but to increase the effectiveness of his creative work in creating a revolutionary consciousness in his audiences. His views echo those of Angela Davis, who has argued that "as Marx and Engels long ago observed, 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. Art is special because of its ability to influence feelings as well as knowledge." Ho's idea of a popular avant-garde is fundamentally anchored to Davis's idea of popular culture e
Excerpted from YELLOW POWER YELLOW SOUL by Roger N. Buckley. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword—Roger N. Buckley.................... ix
"Fred Ho's Demon Baritone Saxophone and His Green Monster Band Blowing the
Demons Down"—Richard Hamasaki.................... xiii
Introduction—Tamara Roberts.................... 1
PART I. REVOLUTION IN MUSIC "It Remains to Be Seen"—Esther Iverem......... 32
Chapter 1. Enter the Voice of the Dragon: Fred Ho, Bruce Lee, and the
Popular Avant-Garde—Kevin Fellezs.................... 35
Chapter 2. "Oh the Hilt, the Hilt Again Please": A Glimpse Inside the
Making of Operas with Fred Ho—Ruth Margraff.................... 54
Chapter 3. Fred Ho's Operatic Journey—Arthur J. Sabatini................... 63
PART II. THE AESTHETICS OF POLITICS "Politics and Poetry"—Genny Lim....... 96
Chapter 4. "Return to the Source": Fred Ho's Music and Politics in the
Asian American Movement and Beyond—Diane C. Fujino.................... 97
Chapter 5. Red Dragon, Blue Warrior: Fred Ho's Ethical Aesthetic—Salim
Chapter 6. In Fred Ho's Body of Work—Bill V. Mullen.................... 147
PART III. A LIFE IN COMMUNITY "This Evening (For Fred Ho)"—Jayne Cortez... 162
Chapter 7. Machete and Chopsticks—Magdalena Gómez.................... 163
Chapter 8. Somewhere between Ideology, Practice, and the Cellular War ...
the Dolphins Sing: An Improv on the Fake Book of a Revolutionary
Artist—Peggy Myo-Young Choy.................... 178
Chapter 9. "That's Why the Work Is What It Is": An Interview with Fred
Ho—Miyoshi Smith.................... 191
Chapter 10. Go On, Shoot—Kalamu ya Salaam.................... 214
Excerpts from "Re-English, for Fred Ho"—Robert Kocik.................... 225
Afterword—Arthur Song.................... 227
Production History.................... 238
Curriculum Vitae.................... 242