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Forget marketing, forget education: The best hope jazz has of reaching hip-hop kids is to swing like mad, and take a page from the uncompromising Fred Ho, a Brooklyn saxophonist-composer who calls the very name "jazz" a racist slur. The 42-year-old's multimedia events are like Mingus jamborees updated for the performance-art crowd, capturing the emotional feel of radical politics without getting didactic. Ho drew more kids to his martial-arts ballet Once Upon Time in Chinese America at the recent JVC festival in New York City than any other event, perhaps because the generation most distant from the Jazz Age at least knows its Ninja Turtle and Xena moves.
"That's all fake," says the Mohawked, goateed Ho as we lounge in a Muzak-blaring Minneapolis hotel lobby. "So hopefully we'll expose them to something authentic--to the ethicality, not just military science, of martial arts."
It was Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver (Eldridge's former wife) who suggested to Ho that martial arts might make the perfect complement to his latest work in progress, All Power to the People! The Black Panther Suite, which Ho performs this weekend at the Walker Art Center. The funk-steeped multimedia collaboration with filmmaker Charles Burnett and media artists Paul Chan and Scott Marshall includes film, video, animation, and archival news footage. Martial arts are the next layer, and they're a good fit for the onetime hand-to-hand combat expert. Ho followed a black friend into the Vietnam War before his radical politics had fully formed, and he now wants to make the Black Panthers vivid for a generation fed only the depoliticized pulp of Mario Van Peebles's Panther.
The acclaimed composer first heard of the Panthers in the early 1970s, when he joined an Asian equivalent, I Wor Kuen, which took its name from the militants of the Boxer rebellion. The son of Chinese immigrants, Ho says he came to Mao through Malcolm X, and his production company was named Big Red Media in tribute. ("Malcolm was called Big Red as a nickname, and Mao was a big red," Ho jokes.) The musician has been an outspoken radical since his teen years, facing racial violence in pigment-challenged Amherst, Massachusetts. He now finds himself in the unusual position of being hailed for his politically charged music, while his politics themselves are routinely dismissed.
CITY PAGES: Do you think jazz has lost its connection with liberation movements?
FRED HO: I don't use the word jazz, because I consider the term a racial slur, but the 20th-century music that comes out of the African-American tradition has definitely been derailed and deradicalized. You find this striking situation where 20-year-old musicians are playing styles that predate their birth and are stuck there. I blame the gatekeepers. Look at what's not being hyped to find the best--like Abe Gomez Delgado or Graham Connah.
CP: What did the Panthers have that activists lack today?
HO: All social movements in the Sixties believed in direct mass organizing as opposed to becoming professional social workers. People didn't get jobs for what they did--they did it because it was part of their identity as radicals.
With the Panthers in particular, they had revolution as a goal. They also had a cultural and artistic zeitgeist that fired the imagination, whether it be a clenched fist, calling police "pigs," wearing your hair natural in an Afro, or the provocative open display of firearms. They weren't wearing three-piece suits, trying to be acceptable.
CP: Now that you've been embraced by the arts establishment, does that give you a sort of free pass for your politics?
HO: If they want me to swallow my social views, that's asking me not to be honest. Amazon.com ran this diatribe about how I should stuff my politics and let my music speak for itself. Well, my music does speak for itself. But what does it say?
CP: Your music combines elements of the Asian folk and African American traditions, but you've have been critical of "world music." What about Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club?
HO: I don't fault the music or the musicians, but I do fault the Christopher Columbus syndrome, the fact that it takes a Paul Simon or a Ry Cooder to "expose" Third World musicians to the wider public. Two, I take umbrage with the depoliticized presentation, which is what it takes to reach solipsistic yuppies. Why is Cuban music being crushed? Because of Castro? No, it's this embargo that most of the world recognizes is unjust. How is it one can love Third World people, love their food, love their music--but you don't hate their oppression?