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Horns of plenty

Nige Tassell on the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a band of brothers with eyes on the people

As the door to the rehearsal room nudges open, the torrent of sound is overwhelming: an explosion of fiercely blown horns fills the air. Squeezed into a space scarcely bigger than the average living room are nine young African-American men – the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The music they are playing is intoxicating, unified but far from uniform, trumpets spiralling off trombones and vice versa. It’s jazz but it also channels soul, hip-hop and afrobeat in one harmonious, crashing wave of sound.

But then, as the tune shunts to a premature halt, the unity disintegrates, the horns replaced by loudly voiced grumbles and counter-grumbles. Perhaps it is to be expected: the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is a band of brothers. Literally. All eight horn players – the oldest 32, the youngest 25 – are siblings, the sons of Phil Cohran, formerly a trumpet player with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra. And this cacophony of voices clearly reflects how they’ve always had to communicate, having grown up in the same crowded house on the South Side of Chicago. The only non-sibling, the drummer, chooses to stay out of all the bluster. Instead, he starts drilling out the rhythm of the next tune, prompting all argument to dissolve, horns moving back towards mouths. Peace is restored.

London has been a second home to the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble since 2006, when they first hooked up with Honest Jon’s, the label co-run by Damon Albarn of Blur and which grew out of the west London record shop of the same name. Their current profile is the culmination of a masterplan instigated by their father more than two decades ago. In the mid-1980s, intending to put together a community jazz ensemble, Cohran began to offer free music lessons to young people on the South Side.

“The government had taken music out of the schools by the 1980s,” explains Hudah, a trumpet player and the eldest band member, during a break in rehearsals. “And parents weren’t pushing their children towards these lessons our father was offering. So he moved them from the YMCA into our living room. This planned youth ensemble just became a family band.”

Cohran was determined that, from the age of four or five, his sons would have an exacting musical education. “Our father is a man of discipline and order,” says Hudah. “We were given the mouthpiece first, to learn to create the buzzing sound. It was the mouthpiece only for the first week. Then, if we could play a clear, steady buzz, we progressed to the horn itself, but only playing one single note for another week! It was like learning martial arts where they start you with stretching exercises. The training was rigorous.”

Smoov, the group’s youngest member and another trumpet player, nods vigorously in agreement. “It was military. From five in the morning, when everyone else was asleep, we were getting dressed so that we could practise for an hour or two before we had to leave for school.”

There were mild episodes of dissent along the way, all perfectly understandable for teenagers with the regular distractions of hip-hop or the NBA. But Smoov now appreciates their parents’ long-game tactics: “They always told us, ‘You hate me now for this, but you’re going to love me for it when you get older. You’ll never have to work a job.’ They were right.”

After a decade performing as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, they now criss-cross continents to perform, whether at formal venues or in their natural habitat, the street corner. And that is where they first came to the attention of Albarn and Honest Jon’s as – despite the attentions of the police – they held an impromptu jam on the Portobello Road, just along from the shop itself. The resulting relationship has been decidedly beneficial. The band’s first, self-titled UK album was released early this month, and Albarn has
introduced new collaborators, among them such African icons as the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal.

On working with Albarn, the brothers are effusive. “He’s a musical genius,” exclaims Smoov. “He connects with everybody.” Hudah agrees: “Damon is a really down-to-earth person. You have to remind yourself when other people treat him like a megastar. He scoops us up like he’s our big brother and points us in the right direction.”

Thanks to this, the brothers are about to reach their largest UK audiences yet supporting Blur at their reunion concert in Hyde Park in July. Explaining their success so far, Hudah says one decision was crucial. “The genius was in us going to the streets,” he explains. “We decided to come to the people, like the billboards in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. It’s not arrogance. We know we have something – there’s just no point keeping it to ourselves.”

The ensemble support Blur at Hyde Park on 2 July and play several festivals this summer, including Womad and the Big Chill The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s self-titled album is out now on Honest Jon’s

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape