Hypnotic Brass Ensemble puts the film festival under its trance
If you're going to the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, the odds are good that you'll see – and even more likely hear – the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. They're going to be performing at the opening night party at Discovery World.
They will be in attendance for the Sept. 27 screening of "Brothers Hypnotic," a documentary by director Reuben Atlas about the literal band of brothers. And, as you'd guess, they'll be on the big screen.
Milwaukee Film seems to have fallen in love with the eight-part brass ensemble, but it's hard to exactly blame them. Their music – a hybrid of jazz, hip-hop, funk and more – is fun and fascinating (many people might recognize their work from 2012's film adaptation of "The Hunger Games," where their song "War" was used as Caesar Flickerman's theme song). The Chicago-based band's story is possibly even more so.
The group consists of eight brothers – trumpeters Smoov, Baji, Hudah and Yoshi; Clef and Cid on the trombone; Rocco on the baritone; and LT on the sousaphone – all sons of legendary jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran. Cohran raised a large family, including 15 sons and seven daughters coming from three different mothers. It was an unconventional childhood, but one that the brothers look back upon fondly.
"We're grateful," said Uttama "Rocco" Hubert. "Sometimes, I wish I could give my son the same thing – a lot of brothers and sisters – so he could experience the same things I did, but I can't afford it. That was the hard part: We were always poor. My father was a millionaire before I was born, about halfway through. When the money's not around anymore, it's hard to take care of the kids so we would get passed-down clothes and passed-down shoes. But we grew up, and we get to reap the benefits of having a strong brotherhood, a thing a lot of others don't have."
While money was often tight in the Cohran household, there was one thing the family had plenty of: music. Cohran and his band, the Circle of Sound, would often rehearse at the house. When the boys were young – around the time they were 4, 5 or 6 years old – their jazzman father would also wake them up at 6 a.m. to practice and play their instruments before school.
"He was in the Korean War so he was a military dad," Hubert said. "He was a 'flip a quarter off the bed' kind of guy. That came into the music and everything. He wasn't hardcore or harsh. He was just very precise and disciplined, so he forced us to be disciplined and precise with things."
The brothers became a part of Phil Cohran's Youth Ensemble, performing in and around Chicago. At the same time, however, the boys own musical preferences began to emerge a little bit.
"We grew up in a jazz house, listening to Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and all this stuff," Hubert said. "But we grew up in the hip-hop era. It was kinda confusing."
Like most teenagers, the boys wanted to break from their parents a bit and, as a result, "rejected the music for a while." They followed other interests and passions, which was art for Rocco. Around the late '90s, though, they all found their way back to the music and the instruments they learned and loved as children. They started performing on streets of Chicago, growing their name and their vibrant brand of hybrid jazz enough to release their first album, "Flipside," in 2004.
Since then, the band has exploded in popularity. Since there are no drummers in the family, the ensemble added a rotation of drummers – currently at six – to their arrangements, who "add a big piece to the music" according to Hubert.
"Sometimes it's crazy for them because we argue a lot, seeing that we grew up together," Hubert said. "At the same time, we have a strong love for each other and a solid bond, so it's really easy for drummers to come in."
They've also released several albums – the most recent of which is "Fly: The Customs Prelude," released last June – and worked with many other famous artists, such as Mos Def and Prince (both described as "solid dudes" by Hubert). Hubert put Damon Albarn – the frontman of Blur and vocalist/songwriter for Gorillaz – up near the top of his personal list of inspirational musicians the ensemble has worked with in the past.
"He's just a feel good kind of guy," Hubert said. "After chilling or doing a tour or whatever with Damon, you come back, and you just come up with a song. It just rubs off on you. He's contagious with his inspiration. He's playful with his music. He'll create anything he feels, and it'll just happen to be something that you like, but he's not making it for that."
That battle between an artist's goals in creating music, and the business/consumer side of the music industry plays a key role in "Brothers Hypnotic." In the documentary, the brothers attempt to keep their values while receiving offers and moving toward fame.
"What we realized was that balance between the new way things are done in the industry and the old way would never, ever exist," Hubert said. "What we have to do is learn how to move and transition. Everything is changing, but while we're doing this, we'll always be ourselves. Six or seven years ago, the industry was so different from us that it seemed like we were like the opposite of the industry. But we've remained ourselves, and the world has adjusted around us. It's almost as though we've predicted the future."
Change is out of the question for Rocco and the rest of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. After all, the ensemble's unique personality and brand of sound is in their DNA.
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble will be performing at the opening night party for the Milwaukee Film Festival on Sept. 26 at Discovery World. The party starts at 8:30 p.m.
The band will also appear at the first screening of "Brothers Hypnotic" on Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. Two additional festival screenings are scheduled for Sept. 30 at 1:00 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre and Oct. 1 at 5:15 p.m. at the Fox Bay Cinema Grill.
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