For the ECONOMIST: WHEN Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble plays, its sound seems different from that produced by other brass bands, especially those from New Orleans. The group’s tunes have an air of melancholy and also an earnest youthfulness. Yet what has really grabbed the attention of fans and media alike is the family connection: the eight members of the band are all brothers.
The ensemble are sons of Phil Cohran, an African-American jazz trumpeter best known for his work with Sun Ra in 1960. The boys grew up in the same house in Chicago’s South Side, with two different mothers and Mr Cohran, who organised the family around daily music rehearsals and a strong, independent, Afro-centric ideology.
The boys eventually ventured out to become street performers, and released CDs of their own music to passers-by. A chance encounter with Mos Def, a New York rapper, during one of those performances led to a collaboration with him at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. This high-profile show led to similar collaborations with Prince, the Wu Tang Clan and Blur, a British group. They have now toured the world and have made roughly a dozen recordings, both live and in the studio.
A new documentary film by Reuben Atlas, called “Brothers Hypnotic”, looks at the group’s journey and focuses heavily on two areas: their family background and the heavy influence of their father, and their struggles and triumphs in navigating the music industry on their own, independent terms. The film airs on April 7th on PBS’s Independent Lens.
“I wanted to make the film because I loved Hypnotic’s music and the way it seemed to, without words, directly reveal their life experiences,” Mr Atlas said. “I was also inspired by the way their sense of purpose drove their life decisions.”
At the core of the film is the boys’ split from their father: not only do they stop attending family rehearsals, they also make career decisions their father may not always approve of (collaborating with record labels and mainstream artists, incorporating rapping into their brass-and-drums sound). By the end of the film, though, Mr Cohran has been looped back into the group.
What’s particularly interesting are the group’s democratic debates and arguments: which label to sign with, who to collaborate with, how to raise their own children. These are questions that audiences don’t often have a chance to hear musicians grapple with. Their journey from childhood to adulthood is something out of the ordinary: all eight emerged from a poor upbringing to create art that is wholly their own, coincidentally just as the popularity of brass bands has become more robust.
They may not be the most technically accomplished brass band working today, but their sound is undeniably unique and clearly rooted in those early days of practice with the entire family. In live performance, once the group and the venue start warming up, it’s difficult for audiences to do anything other than support their efforts.
Photo courtesy of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble