When it comes to unprecedented exposure, 2012 is a watershed for the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The reason is the group's instrumental War featured in the soundtrack to The Hunger Games, the second most popular film at the box office.
It caps off six years of ascendancy for the Chicago group since they moved to New York. They've collaborated with Prince, Gorillaz, Snoop Dog, De La Soul and other music heavyweights. This would be impressive enough, but the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble almost defy description. The eight members - all brothers - play instruments ranging from the trumpet to the giant sousaphone. Their music is a blend of jazz, hip-hop, funk and soul that doesn't sound like anything else, but at the same time has wide appeal.
A clue to the ensemble's sound lies in the fact that their father is trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran, a member of jazz maverick Sun Ra's Arkestra. Cohran taught the boys, who grew up in Chicago's tough South Side, to play.
Tycho ''LT'' Cohran, who plays sousaphone, says life would have been very different it hadn't been for their father's tenacity and his parents being performers.
''There's a 99.9 per cent chance that we wouldn't [have] been into music. The fact of the matter is that every one of us, while we were in the womb, they were on the stage performing. One of the first organs to develop on a human being is the ear. We were bathing in music. It's all that we've known. It's just like walking and talking.''
They were encouraged early to learn an instrument.
''You really didn't even have a choice. It was like the family business, but more than the family business. It was the family tradition, family culture.''
A requirement in the Cohran family, who were raised as vegetarians, was that the boys began practising at 6am before they went to school. ''Everybody would get up in the morning, get ready for school, practise, eat breakfast, got to school, come back, do your homework, practise.
''In the summertime when everybody would get off and go to camp and things like that, we thought it was total torture. We were made to stay in and have to practise. There was classical music reading, theory and everything like that. A lot of the time we just hated it because we wanted to be outside playing basketball. But it was that that separated us from every individual that we grew up with. We never would have known that [at the time] but it was the deciding factor.''
It paid off. By the time they were teens the group, then known as the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble, were performing around Chicago. Occasionally their schedule included VIP performances, including one for Nelson Mandela.
Even if people don't know its name, most people will recognise a sousaphone - the large tuba-like instrument often seen played in marching bands. Cohran says he was naturally drawn to the instrument. He even begged to start playing it when he was about 10 years old, but didn't get permission until he was 12. ''My first brass instrument was the classical French horn. Then I went from that to euphonium.''
For Cohran the euphonium was a ''baby sousa'' that prepared him for its bigger cousin. ''I can say that it had nothing to do with my father. It was seeing guys at high school and universities just playing it. It was like a man's man instrument. They are dominant and very authoritative and it just had a sound like nobody else. I'm like 'I want that'.''
The ensemble pushes at the edges of what they can do with music, and Cohran says he's had the same attitude with the sousaphone. ''When we first started in '99 the sousaphone was more looked on as a student's instrument. It was not really a professional instrument. You could see it in New Orleans, universities or high schools. On stage you'd see people playing saxophones, trombones, trumpets [but] a sousaphone? You didn't see that.
''But in the years that we've been playing I definitely feel that there are way more sousaphone players on the world stage now playing in pop, hip-hop and blues culture. There are different places now that you would not have found sousaphones. One of my biggest things is that I want to make the instrument just the same as the saxophone and trumpet.
''It's the forgotten horn. My father used to tell me that when he was a little boy growing up in Mississippi it was one of the most famous horns. A sousaphone player would come down the Mississippi river playing with a band. But by a stroke of luck it got removed from notoriety. I want to make it popular.''
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble released their first album in 2004 and their latest Bulletproof Brass was released last year. While the ensemble can be appreciated in recordings, it's another thing to see them live. Cohran explains this is why he doesn't worry about staying fit to play the sousaphone - their shows do it for them. ''In a show the whole band is drenched. You can take your shirt off and wring it out and water will come out. Being on stage is exercise ... Being on stage alone makes us fit.''
- © Fairfax NZ News
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