Tag: Fred Ho

Answering the Call: Antiphony Between the Music and Social Movements

A live music concert

When baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho organized sixteen musicians to tour New York City and Vermont in 2014, NPR reported that the “16-piece band wants to introduce a new audience to the voice of Fred Ho.” The tour, dubbed the “Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour!,” however, did not focus on his own compositions, but on the work of the Black Panther-affiliated trumpet player and composer Cal Massey. Massey, active in the 1950s and ‘60s, was an overlooked iconoclast with close links to the core of the post-bop New York scene. Musicians of the post-bop scene included McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, both of whom collaborated with Massey. Coltrane recorded one of Massey’s songs, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” during his 1961 Africa Brass sessions, and (according to Fred Ho) McCoy Tyner’s first professional date was with Cal Massey. Ho’s ensemble performed Massey’s 1969 opus, The Black Liberation Movement Suite, which was interspersed with spoken word performances, rousing discourses from veterans of the Black Panther Party, and visual art that celebrated long-held prisoner and Black Liberation Army member Russell Maroon Shoatz. On this, Ho’s final tour before his passing—Ho transitioned after a grueling cancer battle just two months later—he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On Fred Ho’s final tour before his passing, he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On the fourth day of the tour, in the middle of a concert at the University of Vermont before more than 300 students, the tour organizers received a joyous phone call: a major objective had been achieved. Former Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, held in solitary confinement for twenty-three years, had been released from his cell (7 feet wide and 12 feet long) into the general prison population. It was widely speculated that Shoatz received this cruel treatment and exceedingly long sentence because of his provocative and inspirational political beliefs, which included full-thronged advocacy for matriarchy and urban homesteading, ideals expounded upon in texts he shared with other prisoners and outside writers while serving his life sentence.[1] Ho decided to publish these writings, which ranged from a historical analysis of maroons in Haiti to appeals for women’s leadership in social movements within an ideological framework that Shoatz termed revolutionary matriarchy. The resulting volume, Maroon the Implacable, was discussed during our performances, and its ideas (and its author) generated intense interest amongst the university and community audiences for whom the band performed. Many not only purchased the book but also participated in a letter-writing campaign challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections which had administered Shoatz’s solitary confinement. Ho and the musicians employed the power of cultural activism to engage youth and elders alike in a political process, teaching them both about the history of the Black Power movement, its ongoing relevance, and motivating audiences to challenge Pennsylvania’s attempt to silence and virtually erase this revolutionary.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson. (Photo by Ana Perero)

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes.

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes. Salim Washington referred to this phenomenon as the “macro-antiphonal” aspect of jazz: the call and response between the freedom dreams of Black Americans and this “fundamental, pervasive and catalytic” that underlay the aesthetics of jazz.[2] Fred Ho, channeling Washington, wrote on the subject in an article “Why Music Must Be Revolutionary — and How It Can Be”:

Antiphony is the musical term for “call and response.” …“[J]azz,” everything about it, if is practiced with vital authenticity, is macro-antiphonal, that it calls and the artist, the audience and the music, everything in the universe, must respond.  That is The Magic of Juju.  Shaman-istic, transcendent, evocative, provocative, catalytic, procreative, creative, experimental, perpetually avant-garde, restless and bold, adventurous, exploratory, creatively irrepressible, futuristic, imaginative, and innovative.  Every performance prefigures, anticipates, and is a musical vision-quest for what is next, and discontent with the past and present meanderings and status quo, demanding.

The lessons of the macro-antiphonal were intensely apparent in the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, to which we both contributed. This force was extremely formative to us as artist-organizers. In fact, in many ways Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite (and how Ho was able to mobilize this work in service of the actual Black Liberation Movement activists) became the impetus for our jazz opera, Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite. Mirror Butterfly, as noted in earlier articles, built its libretto and sonic imaginary from the lifework of women eco-activists in the global south. As in the work of Cal Massey and Fred Ho, our own work foregrounds social movement leaders as wells of compositional and aural inspiration. In addition to the subject matter, the piece built a solidarity economy through its distribution model. These decisions led to meaningful political outcomes, such as connections between indigenous social movements in Mexico and Kurdish organizers in Mesopotamia, as well as the ongoing construction of a Yaqui radio station to resist the fracking and destruction of the uniquely biodiverse Yaqui river. The music aimed to capture the same sense of an ever demanding and ever-pushing forward-ness—exemplified in constantly shifting time-irregular signatures that retain a sense of groove, overlapping harmonic systems that still support melodic sensibilities, and an intensely intercultural orchestra that fused pipa, batá, jazz big band, and operatic/gospel choral music.

Marina Calender on stage holding a book with other cast members in the background

Marina Calender performing in Mirror Butterfly. Photo by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtsey of the New Hazlett Theater.

Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed.

All of these spoke to elements of the macro-antiphonal in both the structure of the music and the political outcomes of the work. Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed, which bore witness to the horrors of capitalism, with its building blocks of genocide, slavery, and ecocide. These memories generate multiplicities of meanings when their call for justice summons the activists of ongoing liberation movements. Such figures animate and re-animate the call for a revolution of values, a revolution of the self and community, and ultimately, a revolution against global capitalism. As with Russell Maroon Shoatz’s victory during a tour of Cal Massey’s music, we hope that this piece will animate concrete political outcomes that help us move beyond the necrocene—the age of mass extinction—into a human society with a seven generations consciousness that is looking beyond itself and considers all life as interconnected. Again, we were reminded of the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, when Master of Ceremonies Colia Clark, a committed pan-Africanist and organizer who cut her teeth with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sang in her prophetic voice:

“Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain
Ecosocialism is born.”


1. Herb Boyd, “Political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz out of solitary confinement,” Amsterdam News, March 20, 2014 (http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2014/mar/20/political-prisoner-russell-maroon-shoatz-out-solit/).

2. Melissa Mungroo, “Renowned Jazz Musician Gives Inaugural Lecture at UKZN,” ndabaonline, September 12, 2013 (http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/StoryPrinter.aspx?id=24).

THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

I began studying composition with Fred Ho without knowing quite what I was getting myself into. I was 25 with a fresh graduate degree in composition under my belt, lost in that special way only millennial twenty-somethings get to be. I knew I wanted to write political works and, having met Fred twice before, I knew that he was the one who could help me do it.

The ensuing four years were a study in what it really means to fuse arts and politics: truly understanding the history of struggle and the historical power behind political music. Fred was the great champion of Cal Massey, a composer, bandleader, and Black Panther who was blacklisted from recording studios because of his politics. Fred’s band was the first to ever record and release Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, a nine-movement magnum opus that was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver and tributes different figures in the black liberation movement. Cal used his music and his big band to hold many successful fundraisers for the Black Panther Party; it was for this reason that record labels saw him as enough of a threat to warrant blacklisting. Fred made sure that I studied Cal Massey’s music like it was the holy grail: his unforgettable Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change! never fails to infuse electricity into the room whenever it’s performed, tripling as protest fight song, audience sing-along, and underrated cornerstone of the big band canon.

It’s now 2015: Fred is dead, his life abbreviated by an eight-year battle with metastatic cancer. His political and musical vision transcended his time on this earth, however, and the implications of his music and lessons are more poignant than ever. As the daily news cycle goes from bad to worse and the non-indictments for cops killing young, unarmed black men pile up, I hear in my head the voice of my beloved and late mentor: WRITE. Fred didn’t believe in separating the arts from politics. Virtually all of his music—even the kitschy arrangements of superhero themes and his blazingly groovy interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes—had some political impetus at the basis of it. Fred’s works might have been political slogans, scrawled across a piece of cardboard and carried through a protest: there’s Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes!, written for the Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange; Paper Tigers are Real Scaredy Cats, his reimagining of the Pink Panther Theme for big band; We Refuse to Be Used And Abused!, a suite for his Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.

It’s all too easy for us as a society to forget that jazz has its roots in revolution: slaves used their African rhythms and tonalities to communicate on the plantation. As time passed, jazz became both a method of survival for black musicians and a profession that chewed you up and spit you out (see: the hard lives and early deaths of Charlie Parker, Cal Massey, John Coltrane, and a great many others). The jazz musician became a novelty and a stereotype: poor, sick, often drug-addicted, but genius; the music became appropriated, sanitized, and commodified.

I am lucky enough to have been taught all of these things by Fred; they were part of his requirements for me to study with him. As a young, queer woman in jazz, I take the implications of my craft and calling very seriously. When Fred became too sick, he handed over the baton to his Eco-Music Big Band to me, and I learned that he hired musicians with a serious caveat: at least 51% of his band had to be oppressed peoples. His musicians were his army, effecting change right alongside him.

As Fred’s successor, it is an honor to work with musicians who are moved to do the same. I hear the music that my colleagues are writing and understand the depth with which Fred’s legacy of political music reaches. It goes beyond the instinct to pay tribute to the greats of the civil rights movement and deals with the here and now. The MSO Trio—Albert Marques, Walter Stinson, and Zack O’Farrill (all of whom work within the Eco-Music Big Band)—has two new works that come to mind, both composed by Marques. The first, You’re Under Arrest, is a jazz-meets-heavy metal work about police brutality in the United States; the second, Jazz is Working Class, is a blues with Latin groove about the commodification of jazz for the affluent and its roots in poverty, slavery, and oppression.

If Fred were alive now, there’s no question in my mind that he would be writing works for Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He would want us to soundtrack the protests and then go out and shut the city down. He would demand that our works be virtuosic, loud, and groovy enough to lift the spirits of the masses and reach the families of these young black men.

We as musicians have a responsibility to respond to the world around us, to give the people a song to raise their spirits and fuel the fight in their hearts.

So, in light of the political climate we live in—for Eric Garner, for Mike Brown, for Palestine—I pick up my pencil and write. A melody. An ostinato bassline. It’s got to groove, Fred would say. You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.

Marie Incontrera

Marie Incontrera is a composer, conductor, and band leader whose work spans queer opera, political big band, and music-for-the-oppressed. Marie is the conductor and band-leader of the Green Monster Big Band (Fred Ho’s premiere big band) and the Eco-Music Band (a smaller, variable ensemble), both ensembles for which she also composes and arranges. She was Fred Ho’s last composition and conducting protege.