ALEXANDER BISLEY talks Obama, Prince and New York with a scorching Chicago export.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble hypnotised WOMAD 2010 (a la Gotan Project, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Gurrumul in previous years). The liveliness continued at the press conference where the eight brothers stylishly riffed on and over each other’s answers, from the influence of their father Phil Cohran (Sun Ra and the Arkestra) to taha wahine (“our mothers, our sisters, our lovers, our daughters”). “Pleased to have the Southside of Chicago representin’ in the White House,” I asked? “We knew him before he was State (Illinois’) Senator even!” was my favourite animated one-liner.
Phil didn’t just give musical DNA, he instilled his sons’ clear hardworking ethic (“the sky’s the limit”) on and off stage. It’s 2.10 am after a Paris gig, but instead of enjoying Parisian pleasures, trumpeter Gabriel Hubert (“Hudah”) gives The Lumière Reader a generous, ebullient half-hour via Skype. He adds he and the band remain supporters of the former community organiser musically battling mendacious vulture capitalist Mitt Romney. Barack is likewise an admirer of HBE: “I cannot get enough of these guys, they soothe the soul.”
Hudah’s enthusiasm for New Zealand’s environment and people is palpable: “We enjoyed it a lot. Being at the beach, on the sand, looking at the ocean. Seeing those mountains. Seeing the sky, seeing the Southern Hemisphere, having such a close view of Orion, that was amazing.” Astronomer Phil, who sat on the board of Chicago’s Planetarium for many years, taught his sons about the stars, constellations and heavens, and Hudah is hoping to do some more Southern stargazing. “Some of the brothers are named after stars.”
The other trumpeters are Amal Baji Hubert (“Baji”), Jafar Baji Graves (“Yosh”) and Tarik Graves (“Smoov”). Saiph Graves (“Cid”) and Seba Graves (“Clef”) play trombone, Tycho Cohran (“LT”) on sousaphone, and Uttama Hubert (“Rocco”) leads the vocals with vibrant baritone. The varying drummer is the only non (blood) fraternal member. They are a tight, dynamic and intuitive group, born of their years living and playing together from a young age. The Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble played for Nelson Mandela on his post release tour of the US, and at Harold Washington rallies (Phil managed the first African American mayor of Chicago’s ’83 campaign).
HBE have been described as rap-jazz-soul-funk- rock fusion. “Music is a universal language, music is a whole,” Hudah rejects such genre categorising. “As Miles Davis said, there’s only two types of music: good and bad.” He is irritated by academics who over analyse music, sucking out the joy of creation. “I call them smart dummies.”
Though the brothers always had the gift of music, growing up on Chicago’s infamous Southside had challenges, including gangs and violence. One day in 2001 close friend Robert Locke (“like a brother”) told Hudah and HBE: “Ignore the BS. You can do better.” Five or ten minutes after saying bye, Locke—riding in a car with three of the brothers— was shot dead as eleven bullets rang out. This traumatic incident—eulogised on the track ‘Flipside’—continues to motivate Hypnotic. “It wasn’t like the streets were too rough. He knew like we knew that there was a future in cultivating our music. So he encouraged our music, and his death solidified our journey in this direction.”
They’ve stirred South African crowds singing beautiful ‘Nkosi sikelel iAfrika’. RZA remixed their anti-war anthem ‘War’ (also heard in The Hunger Games). The array of musicians they’ve performed and recorded with includes Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, Femi Kuti, Damon Albarn (pace Liam Gallagher, “a really cool guy”) and Gorillaz and Blur, and Prince. “Can’t describe the feeling when a person like that calls you and says will you rock with me? He’s touched so many people with his artistry. For many of our generation, he’s number two after MJ.” How was it on stage? “Amazing, man!” Hudah exclaims with Chris Rockesque gusto, recalling how Prince asked the Hypnotics to improvise, fusing their music with his. “Impromptu. Right there Johnny-on-the-spot. Out of this world respect.”
Not all their experiences have been respectful. Blair Hull, the rich financial securities trader who Obama beat in the Democratic primary for Illinois Senator, “stiffed us,” reneging on paying. Another politician only remunerated in “beer and chicken.”
Hudah tributes Chicago’s rich artistic and musical tradition (Quincey Jones, Curtis Mayfield): “Proud to be part of that legacy.” Currently dividing his non-touring time between the Second City (“particularly for my daughter”) and NYC, Hubert is also finding the city that never sleeps is lifting his game. “Great city. The bar is set so high. You go there ready to work hard. You feel the vibe, New York minute, grind on that. There’s so many great artists. New York keeps you motivated to constantly work harder and be more creative.”
“Bulletproof Brass is a movement fighting for real music.” So what can Wellington and Auckland expect? “We have a million songs. We play what we’re feeling that night. It’s about emotions, spiritual connection.”