These seven talented brothers from Chicago were born into a musical household. They were influenced by their immediate family – full of musicians and singers – and most notably their trumpeter father Phil Cohran whose musical career reaches back to 1940s St.Louis and who, in 1950s Chicago, spent time playing alongside Sun Ra. The siblings grew up practising and playing under his guidance.
After leaving school towards the end of the 90s the group made a living busking on the streets of Chicago until heading to New York. Since then they have performed with the likes of Mos Def, Prince and the Wu Tang Clan, recorded with Erykah Badu and collaborated with the eclectic group Rocket Juice and the Moon amongst others. Their track ‘War’ was featured on the 2012 feature film The Hunger Games.
This exceptional, spirited band talks to me about the influence of Marcus Garvey, the philosophy behind Ubuntism, and how an individual can access ‘true information’…
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – define please!
Well around the time when the band first formed, we would take our horns to the subways of downtown Chicago and play for the working class commuters. One time in specific, we were playing and a guy in a suit – a professional type – came up to us and told us that he had been entranced by our music on that train stop for over an hour. He said he had been hypnotized. So we started calling our musical style Hypnotic, we figured that it was also a fitting name, so we adopted it as the name of our band. The ‘Brass Ensemble’ part came much later.
‘Marcus Garvey’, ‘War’, ‘Pluto’ and ‘Jupiter’ are just some of the song titles from your collection. What social or political themes can be found in the Ensemble’s music?
Well Marcus Garvey was one of the most influential characters of modern African history. His ideology, borrowed & morphed from Martin Delaney (who we also have an unreleased song dedicated to), influenced men like Elijah Muhammad who was responsible for uplifting so many men of African descent in America (Malcolm X, Farrakhan & others). Kwame Nkrumah, who was the head of the first independent African nation, was also influenced by the teachings of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey – and many other men of the 20th century. We felt it quite befitting to lend some of our energy to his legacy, as men connected to that lineage ourselves … We try to keep our musical message apolitical though… We might throw a taste of it here & there but for the most part we refrain from containing our music in any purely physical format … We feel that our music transcends all boundaries and speaks to things that existed long before there were the mundane separations of political ideology … Africans of old were not bound by the politics of today’s skewed perceptions of human reality … So to are we unbound by these confinements … We speak to eternity !!!
You’ve just finished a European tour, are there any experiences that especially stand out?
No not really … though every tour does hold a different treasure and story to tell, they are much the same … Late nights, long flights & high energy shows !!!
What advantages or disadvantages have you experienced working as an 8-brother-band?
It is actually 7 brothers … And the disadvantage to working with 7 brothers would be agreeing on certain things… It can be quite complicated to come to a consensus with someone whom you are so familiar with … You know their inconsistencies … you’ve witnessed their failures & successes … Sometimes theses things can stand in the way of unbiased discernment !!! … The advantage is you have an unquestionable loyalty … This, in my opinion, far out-weights the disadvantage !!!
What would you say that live performance requires of you as a musician, and as a human being?
… Well, for a Hypnotic show you are going to need a lot of stamina … lol … But aside from that, I’d say confidence is very key … You’ve got to trust yourself & your instincts enough to open up to the crowd … People want to feel connected to the performer & you can’t do that if you closed off from them … It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to open up like that !!!
Considering the significance of the Great Migration within the evolution of Black American music, if you had to put your music into a geographical context, where in the States would you pinpoint as being especially influential?
Well, the significance of the great migration & the evolution of black music would be the increased access to technology & higher quality of instruments … I’m not a historian but I can see a correlation there … I don’t know if I we could put our music into a geographical context … But if your talking about our music and not our choice of instruments then I would say Chicago birthed & raised us … musically speaking … But we don’t attach any sort of confinements to our music or our musical approach … We leave room for exploration … I don’t think it’s always necessary to define things in such a way … especially when we’re talking about creativity … Creativity has to be free … I hope this answers the question !!!
We Be Spirits deals with the word ‘Spirit’ in the sense of a non-visual connection with our ancestors, in this instance our African ancestors. What does it mean to you as African American musicians?
It has been proven that we are ALL descendants of Africans (or melinated people) … Some more removed from that culture, frame of thinking, & blood line than others … Some so far removed that they would even deny this connection … but it exist none the less … We all have our beginnings with the people of the Sun … It is today’s encounter with racism & capitalism that has influenced us to begin to think in terms of Africa as a unified continent … & this makes Africa stronger and more capable to defend itself against it’s intruders … but it was never viewed in that way by it’s original inhabitants until the coming of colonialism … The world itself wasn’t viewed in that way … The people of the sun populated the entire globe & still do … we made distinctions based on culture … We draw from our ancestors eternal spirit … & this is older than time itself & cannot be conceptualized by today’s dogmatic approach to human existence … We believe in Ubuntu … We are people of the sun … Populating the entire universe … I could make that clearer but it’d take a lot more page space … lol …
What, if at all, have you learnt about your ancestry, especially in the musical realm, that has come to you orally as opposed to from books or formal education?
We were taught by our father to access what is inside us through self exploration in a meditative warm up called long tones … Some would call this the Akashic Records … we just say it is what is inside us … Our creative process involves this to a large extent … It is like reaching in the darkness for something … but you don’t know what that something is … but you know when you’ve found it … This is a practice that is as old as oldest civilization itself … We believe that this is where true information comes from … from within !!!
Where do you see live, urban music – like yours – going in the next few years?
To the ends of the earth and beyond !!! …