NEW YORK — Fred Ho, a composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist who composed politically charged operas, suites, oratorios and ballets that mixed jazz with popular and traditional elements of what he called Afro-Asian culture, died Saturday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 56.
The cause was complications of colorectal cancer, said his student and friend Benjamin Barson. Ho had been in a war with the disease — his preferred metaphor, which he expanded on in many books, essays, speeches and interviews — since 2006.
Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.
Self-reliance was a priority for Ho. He rarely played in anyone else’s band (among the exceptions were stints with the arranger Gil Evans and the saxophonists Archie Shepp and Julius Hemphill). Describing himself as a “revolutionary matriarchal socialist and aspiring Luddite,” he never owned a car and made many of his own clothes from kimono fabric.
Despite his determination to stand outside the mainstream, he found support from grant-giving organizations, academic music departments who hired him as artist in residence, and nonprofit arts institutions — including, in New York City, the Public Theater, the Kitchen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, Calif. — he changed his surname in 1988 — he moved with his family when he was 6 to Amherst, Mass., where his father taught political science at the University of Massachusetts. He felt a powerful attraction to the art and rhetoric of black culture; as a teenager, he audited college classes taught by Shepp, the drummer Max Roach and the poet Sonia Sanchez, who were all putting progressive politics in their art. (He never formally studied music, but began teaching himself baritone saxophone when he was 14.)
In interviews, Ho recalled that his father physically abused his mother. “One of my first insurrections,” he told Harvard Magazine, “was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes.”
In 1973, he joined the Marines, where he learned hand-to-hand combat, and was discharged in 1975 — because, he said, he had fought with an officer who had used a racial slur. In his 20s, Ho briefly joined the Nation of Islam and then the I Wor Kuen, a radical Asian-American group inspired by the Black Panthers. Like his two younger sisters, Florence Houn and Flora Houn Hoffman, he attended Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1979.
His sisters and his mother, Frances Lu Houn, survive him.
Ho moved to New York in the early ‘80s to pursue a career as a musician. He formed the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and became associated with other Asian-American musicians working on a newly emergent hybrid conception of jazz, including the pianist Jon Jang and the saxophonist Francis Wong. His first records, “Tomorrow Is Now!” and “We Refuse to Be Used and Abused,” were released by the Italian jazz label Soul Note.
In 1989, Ho had his first work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the bilingual opera “A Chinaman’s Chance.” He then created two ballet operas based on the Chinese novel “Monkey,” by Wu Ch’eng-en, “Journey to the West” (1990) and “Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey.” Both used Mandarin Chinese in their librettos, and both reimagined Monkey, a trickster figure, as a political agitator, upsetting the power structures of the gods. Ho called them “living comic books.”
Other ambitious works, many of which were recorded, were on the subjects of Chinese folklore, physical combat, domestic abuse, the black power movement and revolutionary feminism — and sometimes all of those subjects together, as in the opera “Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors” (1991), written with the librettist Ann T. Greene.
That work imagined a meeting of Fa Mu Lan, the Chinese fighter who was the subject of a sixth-century folk ballad; Yaa Asantewaa, who in 1900, in what is now Ghana, led the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism; Sieh King King, a young Chinese-American woman who agitated for women’s rights in early-20th-century San Francisco; and Assata Shakur, the Black Liberation Army activist.
After learning in 2006 that he had colorectal cancer, Ho documented his fight against the illness in a book, “Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level,” followed by another, more prescriptive one, “Raw Extreme Manifesto: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind and Change the World by Spending Almost Nothing!” He wrote about his treatment in a blog, naming the doctors he mistrusted, thanking his friends and theorizing about his illness.
In “Future’s End,” a lecture from 2010 that he published at the site of the artists’ collective Commoning, he wrote that the cause of cancer is “capitalist industrialism” and “social toxicity,” and praised Luddism, his philosophical passion, as the only alternative: “the opposition to technology (any of it) that is harmful to people or to the planet.”
Even in his final years, as Ho underwent multiple operations, he was still working: on “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!,” a choreographed martial-arts opera based on the 1970s manga comics of Kazuo Koike, performed for two weeks at La MaMa in May and June; on “The Sweet Science Suite,” for 20-piece band and dancers, dedicated to Muhammad Ali, which had its stage premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October; and on several unfinished opuses.
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