Musician and activist Fred Ho has inspired many people in many ways. His avant-garde saxophone playing and composition has pushed the boundaries of jazz music. His infusion of political theory and activism into his art has crossed over into multiple disciplines.
Tamara Roberts is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is co-editor of Yellow Power Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho. She answered our questions about the project.
Q: What was your first exposure to the work of Fred Ho?
Roberts: I first learned about Fred Ho after doing a Google search for “Afro Asian music.” I was beginning dissertation research on black-Asian musical collaboration and his Afro Asian Music Ensemble popped up. I wrote to Fred and, shortly after, found myself sitting in a rehearsal room in Brooklyn hearing (and feeling!) the band live for the first time. From then on, Fred and the group have been so supportive of my work and very giving
of their time.
Q: Fred Ho labels himself in many ways. Can you try to describe him in one sentence?
Roberts: A brilliant, visionary, sometimes irascible, and frequently maddening sound poet, who is interested in pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible in all facets of life.
Q: Is there a blending of those labels in Fred’s work that makes people uncomfortable?
Roberts: Definitely his tendency to constantly push on what is familiar, comfortable, customary, or even appropriate. He is extreme in every way, which can be thrilling but also rub people the wrong way.
Q: As a musician alone, what makes Fred Ho’s style unique?
Roberts: He is one of the most inventive composers, arrangers, and orchestrators EVER. He has skill in drawing sounds out of instruments and instrument combinations that have never been heard before — both in his playing and his compositions. He writes very difficult music that challenges players to new heights but does not feel technical. Using odd meters and harmonies, he is able to infuse these sounds with soul and groove in a way that is pleasing but doesn’t feel predictable.
Q: There is quite a variety of style and discipline with the contributors of the book. Why was it important to have such a diverse group of contributors?
Roberts: The collection of contributors really display the diverse arenas in which Fred operates, as well as the running themes in his career and life. The scholarly analyses are great at providing a critical lens onto his work. At the same time, the essays by artists who have collaborated with him offer personal insights into a process that the scholars would never see. The poets had the challenging task of translating Fred’s music into words,
infusing the pages with a sense of how his music feels. In some ways, I can’t now imagine doing a comprehensive study of someone without these different modes and points of view.