Brass brothers blowing up a storm

By Lydia Jenkin

Meet the brass band of brothers playing hip-hop with extra honk. Lydia Jenkin reports.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are made up of eight brothers taught their craft by their musician father, Kelan Philip Cohran. Photo / Supplied
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are made up of eight brothers taught their craft by their musician father, Kelan Philip Cohran. Photo / Supplied

Chatting on the phone from hometown Chicago, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble trombonist Saiph Graves - Cid to his mates - laughs when he hears that they've got plenty of female fans in New Zealand. The story goes that last time they were here for Womad, there were quite a few girls hanging outside the house they were staying in.

"Oh man, if we'd known we would've come outside. We've got a lot of love for the ladies."

He doesn't mean that in a creepy way, just that they really appreciate having female fans, because sometimes hip-hop shows can be a little male-dominated.

But HBE are not your traditional hip-hop outfit - in fact there's very little rapping involved. It's all about the melting pot of soul, funk, and hip-hop they produce with four trumpets, two trombones, a baritone horn, a sousaphone and drums. Their approach has taken them from Chicago, and found a wide international fan base.

The eight brothers in the outfit (and an "honorary" non-related brother on drums) were taught music by their father, famed Chicago cosmic jazz musician and educator, Kelan Philip Cohran who played with Sun Ra, among many bands. From a young age they were woken at 5am to practise for several hours before school, and quickly became the centre of their father's Youth Ensemble.

"Our father was very strict and there was no room for error, but he was a great teacher. He was all about understanding the principle behind something before you begin to try it, and being our teacher and our father, he knew what we were capable of, and he wouldn't accept anything less."

The siblings also bonded over their growing love of hip-hop as teenagers, forming a side group called Gangsters With A Curfew, through which they developed the idea of merging their jazz background with a hip-hop flavour.

That tight-knit, productive upbringing is undoubtedly a key part of the band's success. Having started out performing on the street, they've now sold more than 500,000 copies of their full-length albums, play sell-out international tours and have collaborated with everyone from Mos Def to Erykah Badu; from Prince to Damon Albarn.

"I think the part that wouldn't be present if we weren't brothers, or taught as co-students, that part of our music is kind of underlying, it's the part where we can create without looking at each other, or stopping to explain it, the part where we can do a spectrum of chords without having to sit and pass out notes."

They've never stopped learning from their father either. They've recently released an album with him (called Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble), playing his songs with a little of their own spin, and Cid says that through his leadership, they're still learning from him.

"We did kind of leave before our final 'music graduate school' shall we say. So he always has things to teach us, principles, or even going over things that we learnt as children that need to be reiterated."

HBE have the kind of discography that's hard to sum up because they're a prolific bunch; it's chock-full of LPs, EPs, 10" vinyl releases, and collaborations, and it looks like over the next 12 months they're going to expand that list even further, with a "traffic jam of new music", as Cid puts it.

Aside from their father's album, and numerous free downloads and remixes, they've also got a follow-up to 2011's Bulletproof Brass EP ready to drop, and a major three-year-long collaborative project album called Fly they've decided to hold until 2013.

Plus, they have a new album due out at the end of the year: Jazz Volume I on which they've decided to steer away from the party band sound they're known for, and speak directly through the world of jazz.

"We grew up listening to Duke Ellington playing jazz tracks like Caravan, A-Train, Echoes of Harlem, so in a lot of ways we're old jazz dudes in young guys' bodies."

The album is all about showing off their jazz songwriting skills, their talents with improvisation and soloing. "People expect Hypnotic to be a party, and to bring an energetic show, so we wouldn't usually slow it down and go cosmic to the stars. But now we have a whole album where we can explore a different side without having the pressure of what people expect. The songs are inspired by our travels to places like Brazil, or our experiences together, we've always got plenty of ideas.

"When we get in a room together, we try to play more than we talk. A lot of arguing goes on, but we find a way. Our problem is that we have so many ideas, it's how we choose and sort through the creativity that's the problem. We always say that our music is the product of 70 per cent arguing and 30 per cent agreeing, and that's the magic."

LOWDOWN

Who: Nine-piece Chicago outfit Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
When and where: Playing at The Powerstation in Auckland on Saturday July 21, and at Bar Bodega in Wellington on Sunday July 22
What: Latest releases Bulletproof Brass EP, and Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

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