October 19, 1999
Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors. A new American opera in three acts; Music and concept by Fred Ho; Book and libretto by Ann T. Greene. Members of the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble. (Big Red Media/Koch Jazz, CD # 7899) 1999.
American opera just keeps going off in more and more directions. As a counterpoint to Jackie O, the new opera reviewed in this space a couple of issues back, consider Warrior Sisters by Fred Ho. Baritone saxophonist, composer, writer, political activist, and leader of at least two music groups, Asian-American Fred Ho, like Wynton Marsalis, whose string quartet At The Octoroon Balls was reviewed in this space in the last issue, is one of the younger generation of artists inventing whole new categories of American music. Ho wrote A Chinaman's Chance, the first contemporary Chinese-American opera, and more recently Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey, based on the traditional Chinese myths of the Trickster Monkey. In these works Ho pulls together diverse musical elements, including traditional Asian instruments and traditional forms, combined with modern instruments, classical forms, and jazz elements to create completely new musical and dramatic concoctions. In addition, Ho uses these musical innovations to present sometimes-controversial social/political messages. One critic wrote that Ho's music "is at once highly social, political and above all swings with great feeling."
The present work, Warrior Sisters, is a fantasy opera depicting episodes from the lives of four female revolutionaries. The album's liner notes contain this succinct summary of the opera: "Warrior Sisters is the imaginary meeting of four legendary revolutionaries -- Fa Mu Lan, the fiery Chinese Boxer, Nana Yaa Asantewa, Queen Mother of the Ashante nation (pre-modern Ghana), Sieh King King, the youthful and audacious Chinese American feminist, and Assata Shakur, legendary leader of the Black Liberation Army. In the late 1890s, after the abortive Boxer Rebellion, Fa Mu Lan escapes through time and space to rescue Nana Yaa Asantewa, exiled by the British conquerors to captivity on the Seychelle Islands. Together they find Sieh King King, who, as a stowaway, has arrived at The Gold Mountain (19th century California) to preach revolution and feminism to the fortune-seeking Chinese merchants and laborers.
"Tearing a hole in the universe [!], the three womyn warriors vanish from the 19th century, and travel through time and space to 1970's Amerikkka. There Nana Yaa Asantewa and Sieh King King liberate the imprisoned and pregnant Assata Shakur. With the revolutionary underground's help, she rendezvous with Fa Mu Lan in southern Florida for the final leg of her escape. Carried by Fa Mu Lan's fiery white stallion, Assata flees to revolutionary Cuba in time to give birth to her daughter, Nana." Quite a story -- down to the fiery white stallion!
Musically, Warrior Sisters may not quite measure up to a story like that, but it's pretty exciting as well. The Afro-Asian music ensemble is a sextet (piano, bass, three woodwind, two percussion) that is able to sound like a much larger group, and clearly a group comfortable with Fred Ho's syncretic compositional style and rapidly shifting musical idioms. It's best to check your expectations and preconceptions at the door when listening to this work, because whatever they are, they're sure to be wrong. On the other hand, you're sure to be entertained.
You can hear portions of Warrior Sisters by Fred Ho on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.
-- J. Green