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Hypnotic Brass ensemble immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]
Hypnotic Brass ensemble immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]

Pass The Popcorn: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Immortalized In New Doc 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]

Hypnotic Brass ensemble immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]

“It’s like meditation - it connects you to the universe.”

Just minutes into Brothers Hypnotic, the audience is surrounded by a harmonious embrace of sound - it is the eight man band of brothers known as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, warming up to the light of day with the practice of “long tones” on their instruments. Big, loud, steady notes played all at once, the sound feels like something bigger than the sum of its parts. It is the energy of all those participating, joining in with all those that have carried the tradition before them. It is the sound of awakening and calling upon the musical ancestors of the universe.

The film, director Reuben Atlas’ poetic 2013 debut and selection at film festivals worldwide, follows South Side Chicago-bred, New York-based brass crew Hypnotic Brass Ensemble for several years, documenting the group’s journey to find commercial success while resisting the pressure to join the mainstream music industry. The opening scene shows seven of the eight members of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble meandering along forested train tracks in a yet-undisclosed location. A visual reference to the 1986 classic tale of friendship and brotherhood Stand by Me, the brothers in our view even joke about the likeness of the scene to that film, setting the tone for a film that understands quite well that often the best music comes from even better stories.

To this day, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble continue to tour internationally, both as solo acts on the European festival circuit and backing for artists such as Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Prince. Their performances garner huge crowds around New York City, and they have released ten albums--and that’s not including their individual releases. And yet, it is not their successes (impressive as they are in their resistance to joining the mainstream music industry) that takes the central focus of the film - it is the story of the brothers and their father, jazz musician, activist, and black radical Kelan Phil Cohran. Cohran, who in his day played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago along with future members of Earth, Wind & Fire, raised his children in a household that was as “non-traditional” as it was filled with music and black consciousness. That household - comprised of 24 siblings and two co-mothers, also interviewed in the film - was responsible for not only developing the brothers’ musical tastes at a young age, but also their values for community, brotherhood, and uplift.

As history tells us, the black consciousness and political identity developed in the 70s of course, couldn’t last forever -  and its demise was made in no small way possible by the U.S. Government, who targeted and harassed Cohran among the many other influential community members of the time. As the brothers grew older, more complex did their relationship with their father grow as well, both in the familiar ways that teenage boys often experience--and in ways that could only be understood through a family dynamic as unique as theirs. As Hypnotic Brass Ensemble developed as an entity unto itself outside of their father’s family practices, the space between the values of their father and the need to develop their own identity continued to widen the rift between Cohran and the brothers of the group.

But even in their desire to distinguish themselves from legacy established by their father, the brothers of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are still most certainly their father’s sons. Despite the clear generational differences spoken to by both the Brothers and Cohran - “it’s better they do their thing and I do mine,” Cohran laments at one point, ostensibly in response to a question of whether they should all continue to play together as adults - the desire of the group to uphold their father’s values while building a name for themselves in today’s music industry is a constant point of tension explored through the film. The spirit of the 1970s, in all its counter-establishment, pro-Black, reclaim-our-African-roots essence, makes its presence known in many dimensions of the group’s story. Like most artists, Hypnotic’s members dream of being able to make a name and a living for themselves using their craft, but often find themselves caught between this desire and their own sense of loyalty to their father and his values of Black independence and resistance to joining “the man.” At one point in the film, the group must decide whether or not to take a deal with a major label, a stalwart of the very same industry that shut their father out many years before.

the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is immortalized in new documentary 'Brothers Hypnotic' [Trailer + Review]

In addition from the strong messages of self-determination and Black Power inherited from Cohran, the brothers carry with them another tradition their father instilled in them - a refusal to be defined by someone else’s terms. On a surface level reading of the group, it is clear to see how being members of the hip hop generation has influenced Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, as well as been a source of slight departure from the jazz, funk, and soul their father raised them with. The group’s allegiances to hip-hop may be one of the main points of divergence from the musical traditions of their childhood, but the brothers are quick to emphasize the many genres their music draws upon (for those who really need that nod to a hip hop classic, be sure to check out Hypnotic’s cover of OutKast’s "Spottieottiedopaliscious" below).

It is not only genre categories they defy with their performances, however, but prevailing ideas about legitimacy and the appropriate spaces for creative expression as well. In a profile piece for the New York Times’ Arts Section (where the crew got a photo ten times the size of Beyoncé's, on the same page), some of the brothers took slight issue with being labeled ‘street players’ in their headline - as opposed to just ‘players’ or performers. It’s an interesting moment, one that fleetingly encompasses one of the central tensions of the film - the Ensemble may be ‘street players’ in the sense that they play in the street, a conscious objection to co-opting their work in order to make it into more “respectable” venues (and to be fair, they end up making it into such venues not long after the publication of the NY Times piece, but on their own terms - a coup for any independent artist). But to be defined primarily as such unfairly limits a reader’s perception of the Brothers and their music, as the film takes caution to avoid pigeonholing or stereotype in its portrayal of the group.

It’s a long film, no doubt, with a lot in it. But it is one that gracefully balances the Brothers’ at-times strained relationship with their father and their aspirations to make a name in a business for themselves, a duality that must be credited to director Reuben Atlas’ clear decision to keep the film firmly rooted in both the artists and their family story. And for a movie about music, the vibrant colors and skillful editing make its visual aesthetic rival the intensity of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s music itself - no small feat indeed. The film is as much a music documentary as it is an examination of a complex family history over two generations, asking two questions simultaneously: what does it mean to be an independent artist today trying to maintain your values while managing commercial success? And what does it mean to honor the legacy of the generation that raised you if those values aren’t always your own? - a question that asks on its most basic level - what does it mean to be a family?

Brothers Hypnotic is currently touring film festivals around the country

>>>Find Screening Time + Dates Here

For NYC heads, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble kicks off a four-month residency at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn this weekend with special guest DJ Neil Armstrong.

>>>Find More Info + Live Dates Here