Note: This column was to have appeared in March of 1999, but never appeared in print because of space problems.

Music! It's Better When Personal!!

By Kyle Gann

Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble

February 12

The Kitchen

Images flash by in the background: Slave auctions. Photos of mistreated slaves during the Civil War. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. J. Edgar Hoover. Bug-eyed, grinning Blacks eating watermelon. Cops beating Black youths. Many of the shots are standard 19th-century iconography, most of the rest remind you of the 1960s. In between, silhouettes flash: Afro-ed women kicking cops, a donkey copulating with an elephant between flashes of the white house. And Fred Ho's razor-sharp ensemble is playing its militant, close-knit jazz.

This was Ho's All Power to the People! The Black Panther Ballet Suite. There's no ballet as yet; that will be added later, a dance in martial arts style. The 15 movement titles sported 24 exclamation points among them:

1. The March of the Oppressed!

5. Political Power Doesn't Grow Out of a Sleeve of a Dashiki or an X-Cap, But From the Barrel of a Gun! Free All Political Prisoners Now!!

6. Arm the Sisters to Disarm the Patriarchal, Militarist Ruling Class State! There Can Be No Revolution Without the Liberation of Womyn, So Prepare for Matriarchy!!

14. Fight, Fail, Fight Again until Victory! (By Any Means Necessary, Unless You Got Something Better!)

And so on. The music fit the titles: every movement high energy, tightly controlled, with brief but energetic solos and stop-on-a-dime rhythms, and at every moment militant. One would like to think the Black Panthers occasionally had moments of humor, of quiet introspection, moments given over to admiration of Malcolm X or to thankfulness for small victories gained. None of those moments, however, were Ho's concern. Like The Cause, the music could never pause for a second from its endless struggle.

This was not subtlety. There was no missing the point. And yet Ho's music is often subtle, in ways that seemed unrelated to the political message. The rhythms hardly ever did what you expected them to. Most of the movements fell into grooves, yet not the kind conducive to foot-tapping: five slow beats, seven moderate beats, eleven fast ones. The music was so propulsive that the guy behind me tried to stomp his foot for awhile, then gave up, thankfully, because he couldn't follow the count. Interestingly, in the post-concert question-and-answer session Ho came close to admitting that the funky rhythms are what keep him personally interested in the music. The proletariat may get tripped up marching in 11/8 meter, but Ho needs those rhythms for the music to be interesting enough as art for him to work with.

The response was highly positive, with many audience members thanking Ho for his part in the class struggle. Yet at least one listener wished that Ho had indulged his artistic side even a little further. After all, though his music is always political (all art is political, you say, well, all right), it is not always so monochromatic. His big opera Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey, at BAM last season, overflowed with humor and humanity, solving the world's problems so charmingly that I was eager to hear him do it again. By comparison, The Black Panther Ballet Suite seemed to have come to embody the heartless oppression it protested against; as though Ho had given up trying to feel the music personally, and was just going along with the program, playing his little rhythmic games on the side to keep himself interested.

For Ho is too brilliantly creative to resort to superficiality, and his musicians are too fantastic to misuse. His drummer royal hartigan handles the mathematics of the obscurist beat with ease, and his marimba player, Diana Herold, wields her faster-than-the-eye sticks with a power and authority that I've never seen another mallet player achieve. Sam Furnace and David Bindman grind out tight sax solos with nearly as much machismo as Ho himself. The group can go from zero to 60 or vice versa on Ho's slightest hand signal. They're so good that you wish you could see them enjoy what they're doing, rather than so abstemiously subjugate themselves to an agenda. For the final "Victory Parade" they marched sternly through the audience while playing; I couldn't help comparing it to the crazy parades Sun Ra used to end concerts with, chanting his cosmic slogans, which so good-humoredly made the audience feel included. Ho's group made me feel intimidated, not included. They were preaching to the converted, and if you weren't converted, you could go to hell.

The collage of visuals which was done live by Scott Marshall, Paul Chan, and others, is still a work in progress. I hope that the final results will do more than simply remind us, with a litany of iconic images, of the horrible things white society has done to Blacks: illuminate, draw out the underlying psychology, measure progress, show healthy alternatives. It's great when music serves The Cause. But music may serve The Cause better when the music is put first and The Cause second, and when the audience is seduced rather than lectured with exclamation points. Ho's best music suggests that he knows that.

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