“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.