Remembering Earthman Kelan Phil Cohran

Photo by Robert Sengstacke

Kelan Phil Cohran (May 8, 1927-June 28, 2017) was an influential jazz musician, composer, civil rights activist, inventor, educator, artist, philosopher, astronomer and father. Cohran was born in Oxford, Mississippi and moved to St. Louis with his family when he was ten years old. Inspired by the St. Louis jazz scene, he first began playing trumpet with Clark Terry in the 1940s. Cohran later joined a group led by Jay McShann in the 1950s, where he was introduced to the touring life and exposed to different forms of jazz. It was also through that experience that he began meeting prominent jazz musicians. From recording with McShann and Walter Brown at Peacock Records in Houston, Texas, Cohran credits this experience as a pivotal moment in his life, where he became an engaged musician and musicologist. (Shapiro, 2001).

In 1950, Cohran was drafted into military service. He avoided going to war in Korea by becoming a member of the Naval Academy Military Band in Maryland. After he finished his military service in 1953, he moved to Chicago because the jazz scene was thriving. It was also where he could learn the Schillinger system of melodic harmonies. After finding out that Schillinger lessons in Chicago were $25 a pop, he opted to independently research Indian classical music instead, which was based on the same mathematical concepts. He studied composers such as shenai player Bismallah Khan. Throughout his life, Cohran learned from hearing common threads in structure and compositions in many forms of traditional and indigenous music, which in turn helped him develop his own techniques.

Ricky Murray, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, Sun Ra, Phil Cohran, Jon Hardy, Marshall Allen. Chicago, c. 1960.

Cohran played trumpet with Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra from 1958 to 1961. Describing his experience while watching the audience at The Fifth Jack, playing with the Arkestra on the west side of Chicago, he said, “We had them all mesmerized and it was the first time I realized how much power we had. It was proof that music had power over people whether they were conscious or not, it gets inside of your body, inside of your body rhythms. It mixes with your chemistry. Music affects the ancient tuning systems.”  Cohran left Sun Ra and his Arkestra in 1961 to pursue his own creativity. From a conversation I had with Phil playing his first show in Portland, I remember him telling me, when recounting his musical differences with Sun Ra, “Sun Ra was a spaceman, I am an earth man.”

On Cohran’s birthday, May 8, 1965, he established the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, along with co-founders pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, and drummer Steve McCall. The AACM’s ethics centered around the belief that musicians should maintain ultimate control over the rights of their artistic creations. On a broader level, it promoted the idea of the self-sustaining collective and emphasized intellectual growth through community education, particularly among working class youth of color. Members paid minimal dues to maintain AACM, and musicians played concerts at different venues around Chicago to raise funds for additional support. It also networked with like-minded organizations located in other cities, most notably the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, the AACM is still an important organization supporting Chicago jazz musicians in fostering equitable music education through performance and honoring the achievements and contributions of its members.

 

By late 1966, Cohran began to differentiate himself creatively from other members of the AACM, feeling that the organization had “played out.” In 1967, he parted ways with the organization and founded the Affro-Arts Theater, after being motivated by Oscar Brown Jr., who had formed a theater company following the success of a show called Joy ‘66. Cohran espoused exploring the realms of traditional trance freedom musics, with Chess Records session players Aaron Dodd (tuba), Louis Satterfield (bass), Donald Myrick (saxophone), Charles Handy (trumpet), Pete Cosey (guitar), and Bob Crowder (drums). This lineup would become the Artistic Heritage Ensemble in the summer of 1967, regularly gigging on the shores of Lake Michigan and obtaining a grant to display art exhibits in an old boathouse located on 63rd and Lake Shore Drive. For the first time, this brought together a large community of sculptors, writers, poets, painters, dancers and musicians to the lakefront. At Phil Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensembles’ last performance, over 3000 people gathered, and the song “On the Beach” was written on August 16 to commemorate, with attendees such as Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) and Ramsey Lewis as active participants (Shapiro, 2001). Gwendolyn Brooks further memorialized the gatherings on the beach through her poem, “The Wall”, published in 1967:

    Women in wool hair chant their poetry.

     Phil Cohran gives us messages and music

     made of developed bone and polished and honed cult.

     It is the Hour of tribe and of vibration,

     the day-long Hour.”

Recently, the AACM honored Cohran in a ceremony on July 9, 2017, on the 63rd/Lake Shore Drive beach. They wanted to recreate the music Cohran inspired at this location some 50 years ago.

Caption- Chicago Defender

The Affro-Arts Theater was a gathering space on the south side of Chicago that hosted community development while inspiring the empowerment and unity of African American peoples. The theater held conferences and concerts, offered education in African history and African languages, such as Swahili, and promoted healthy vegetarian cooking. The Artistic Heritage Ensemble also performed every weekend, and their record, Armageddon, was recorded in the lobby. Chaka Khan took classes and performed her first public shows at the theater. Maurice White was a pupil as well, learning how to play Cohran’s own musical invention, the Frankiphone, which he later incorporated into songs written by his band, Earth, Wind & Fire. Jazz vocal greats Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter and Harry Belafonte also either performed at the theater or came to listen until its closure in 1968, after the leadership clashed with racist city officials because of the intersectionality and positionality of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Cohran continued the mission of the Affro-Arts Theater with Transitions East and Sun Ark which were music venues and health food stores, in the 1970s, and later into the 1980s. He then taught music and lectured at Malcolm X Junior College, Kendall and Olive-Harvey Colleges (Russonello, 2017).

I had the privilege of setting up Phil’s first live show in Portland, OR on Feb 6, 2014. The show was at Hollywood Theater and was presented by Mississippi Records, who had reissued his album, The Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute in Music). When Phil saw his name on the Hollywood Theater marquee, he told me the last time he saw his name on a marquee was at the Affro-Arts Theater. I remember his face being overjoyed and smiling from ear to ear. In a sense, he seemed to be revisiting his experiences facilitating community-based empowerment at the Affro-Arts Theater during the time when the civil rights movement in Chicago was awakening into action. For his show in Portland, he brought two trays of slides to project, documenting performances and black community empowerment on the beach from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He performed between his narrations and slides with works composed on the Frankiphone and floor harp, including songs from the Meditation and African Skies albums, as well as a rap that was inspired by his sons in The Hypnotic Ensemble. The winter in Portland was particularly bad that week, and when Phil landed the day before, I relayed to him that he had brought some Chicago winter weather with him. The Hollywood Theater decided to keep Phil’s show on the agenda and, despite the blizzard that shut down the city of Portland that night, over 300 people came out to see Phil perform.

Cohran invented a musical instrument he called the Frankiphone, also known as a Space Harp. The Frankiphone, named after his mother, is an electrified amped version of an African finger piano, also called the mbira or kalimba. It is constructed of a wooden hollow body, with 22-28 staggered metal tines, and played by holding the instrument between two hands and plucking the tines with thumbs. From one conversation I had with Phil, he told me a Japanese person contacted him and asked if he could sell him the patent. Phil was reproachful, saying he refused the offer because the Frankiphone is a spiritual part of his family; and of course, there is no price to quantify the sale of family. When audiences watched Cohran play the Frankiphone, he would fall into deep meditative states, often presenting with closed eyes, his whole body becoming fluid and one with the notes and vibrations resonating from the instrument. It’s as though he achieved a higher consciousness to the eyes and ears of the beholder. Cohran would present on stage differently when playing his floor harp or trumpet, as though he was channelling a higher force from within, specific to the instrument he was playing. In 1991 Cohran was invited to teach jazz music, astronomy and ancient theory to students in China. He was honored with his name Kelan, bestowed to him by Chinese Muslim monks, which translates into ‘holy scripture.’

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Cohran leaves a legacy of an extended family, including twenty three children between multiple wives and relationships. He has 37 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Seven of Cohran’s sons are also musically known with their band, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Their albums are an amalgamation of musical education taught to them by their father, including the importance of knowing their African heritage. HBE’s sound is grounded in classic marching band, almost New Orleans celebratory style interspersed with complex rhythm changes, hip hop, roots and blues, with songs sometimes dissipating into hymnal abstractions. Listeners of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who also listen to Cohran, can hear their father’s influence empowering and influencing the next generation.

As an ethnomusicologist, Cohran spent his life researching music and African heritage in all forms. He would link evidence from rainforests and Sub-Saharan deserts from structures in Egypt, interpreting symbols to uncover mysteries of advanced African first peoples. He would philosophize and transcribe, signs, patterns, and songs of African ancestors to add to his holy scripture. Cohran stated the Greeks learned their modes from Ethiopians, connecting ancient science, environments, humanism and astronomy. In a divine sense, Cohran believed music is the cosmic original language of the original people; throughout his lifetime, he asserted that black people sang before speaking (Never the Same blog). Languages came from songs where environments were maintained and advanced by songs. We are privileged to have been gifted Kelan Phil Cohran’s songs and wisdom, as transcribed through his life’s work in recordings of musical mastery and teachings. Thank you, Kelan Phil Cohran, for gifting us with your presence on earth.

 

Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour) & Jim Bunnelle (Center for Cassette Studies).

References

Russonello, Giovanni. Kelan Philip Cohran, a Musician who Invigorated Chicago with Education & Activism, Dies at 90. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/arts/music/kelan-philip-cohran-a-musician-who-invigorated-chicago-with-education-and-activism-dies-at-90.html

Shapiro, Peter (2001). Blues & the Abstract Truth. Wire.http://www.philcohran.com/pc_wr_fr.htm

Zorach, Rebecca. Kelan Phil Cohran. Never the Same blog: Conversations about Art Transforming Politics in Community in Chicago & Beyond. https://never-the-same.org/interviews/phil-cohran/

 

A Mixtape vs. A Radio Show

There are as many different ways to put together a mixtape or a radio show as there are people that do it. No one way is right or wrong, but here are some thoughts that I have for when I put together my radio show, or for when I used to compile a mixtape.

When making a mixtape, one of most important aspects to consider is the purpose of the tape. In other words, the person for whom the tape is intended. I found it best when possible to remove my ego from the situation. Sure, I was “cool” enough to recognize all of the music I had gathered together for my collection, but not everyone’s life revolves at 33 1/3.

When I made a tape for someone who I thought knew less about music than myself, but still wanted to draw them in, I would leave off some great songs on purpose, in the hope that a second or third tape might be welcome and serve to further expose or educate. I always figured that needles should be moved very carefully from left to right.

With a radio show the focus is on more than one person. The deejay has no foreknowledge of the audience’s musical background, so I tend to put forth all of the songs I intended in each show I broadcast, in the hope of engaging the audience with each track.

The selection process for either a mixtape or a radio show is virtually the same, at least for myself. I go through the collection, pick out songs or records I think might work for the particular task, and basically make a microcosm of my collection. From this group I then further select, or as in this case, un-select tracks, as the recording of the tape progresses, or as my show is broadcast. At the end of either I find I am left with a few tried and true favorites that I have used or played too often. Arrows that are forever in my quiver. The usual suspects, Gang Of Four and Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance.

With a radio show I tend to think in short increments, each group of songs between air breaks being a set of its own. So that after each break the show continually starts over and over again, for myself. It is constantly the first song of a set, so I am often looking to feature new music or new reissued tracks. A radio show for me, over the course of two hours, goes through many different moods and tempo changes with each little set. With a mixtape, I tend to think of each side of the tape as a whole piece to itself. With a tape you get a chance to set two different moods or one continuous mood or theme, from one side to the next.

When I started making mixtapes, the first song on a tape would always be a strong one, to grab the attention of the listener, with the next song being equally as powerful, then something less intense with the third, to bring the experience down. In this way, a feeling of ebb and flow was created for the listener. At least to my mind. With careful attention paid to the segue from song to song. Rewinding the tape, and then starting it at just the correct time that the needle rode into the music on the groove of the record. This might have been me at my most coordinated, operating the home stereo components. The turntable and the cassette recorder in tandem.

It was not long, however, before I discovered that I could record bits of dialogue from spoken word records, or soundtrack albums that included actual movie dialogue. I would place these bits on the beginnings of mixtapes as intros, instantly cutting to music when the spoken word piece ended. One of my favorite spoken word records that I used was “Sensory Awakenings: Couples” by Bernard Gunther. The content of the record, being about couples gently slapping or tapping each other, always made for, to my mind, a delightful intro to any set of music. Another aspect I enjoyed about the spoken word intros was that I tended not to list them on the J Card, on which I listed the tracks for the mixtape, so it was sort of a surprise.

This changed when I moved from mixtapes to making mix cds on a general basis. The track numbers are programed onto the disc and tend to appear or be listed when the cd is played. Using a spoken word intro as track one would be confusing if i left it off the listed songs. Imagine hearing “gently slap tap your partner on the face…” as the first track, when it clearly states “Vitamin C” by Can as track one. With the use of cds I often moved away from spoken word intros, much to the regret of my Misc. Album section.

These days I hardly ever make cd mixes for friends. I concentrate instead on my radio show. Part of the reason for this is, I think, the advent of the internet and everyday access to knowledge. Sometimes I think we are looking at the corpse of expertise when we turn to a search engine. While I have to admit that the access to knowledge is a marvelous thing, there was also something to be said for collecting and delving into a type of music. Making yourself well knowledged and an expert of sorts.

Today it seems just about any sort of music you can think of, and tons more that you never imagined, is available with a few clicks on the keyboard, and either a purchase from an amateur record dealer or a download or two. Despite the tidal wave of musical knowledge, I still find it gratifying to put together a selection of music for a two hour period with myself as a filter, not an algorithm curating a playlist. The human touch. That connection and communication is the very idea for which radio was created.

Nigerian Afrobeat: The Women

No doubt many social factors prevented women artists from being recorded in Nigeria during the emerging 1970s pop scene. Chief among them was the disreputable view of musicianship for women, the fact that it was viewed as bordering on prostitution by a traditionalist Nigerian patriarchy. By and large, women were relegated to backing vocals, often transforming mediocre records into fantastic ones; think William Onyeabor’s “The Moon and The Sun” from Hypertension or The Wings’ “Someone Else Will.” If they assumed a headlining role, it was often through collaborative partnerships with supportive musician spouses (Grace and Jack Ekpeyong) or through family connections in the industry (Lorine Okotie, younger sister of Kris Okotie). Via education gateways, Josephine Mokwunyei was a young academic when she recorded her landmark Boys & Girls LP in 1979, under the moniker Joe Moks. Many point to the success of Oby Onyioha’s breakthrough on Phonodisk, I Want To Feel Your Love in 1981, as the big tipping point. From the pre-80s era, the most well-known Nigerian female singers are probably the Lijadu Sisters and Christiana Essien. Essien was already a teenage T.V. star when she recorded her first LP Freedom for Anodisc in 1977. The Lijadu Sisters were perhaps culturally acceptable because harmonizing sisters often get a societal pass. By their own account, gender bias and exploitation played a role in their acrimonious split from Decca’s Nigerian subsidiary label Afrodisia, in 1980. Colonial habits die hard.

Biographical details are scarce to non-existent. We have linked to YouTube rips when possible, but tune in bi-weekly to Center for Cassette Studies and Weekend Family Music Hour on FreeformPortland for more!

Continue reading →

Subsonics “Flesh Colored Paint”- A Review

“Flesh Colored Paint” is the eighth album by the band, Subsonics, who have been releasing albums since 1992. In that time, they have not strayed far from their winning formula. They play a stripped down garage rock, with elements of trashy 50’s sleaze ballads, rolled up with a Velvet Underground awareness, and set alight with spiky guitar solos by Clay Reed, a graduate of the guitar school of Robert Quine. It is a style well evident and fully realized on their first self titled album, released by WorryBird records in 1992.

The band is a trio, with Rockin’ Clay Reed as singer and guitarist, and Buffi Aguero playing a minimal stand up drum kit, having both been in the band since the beginning, while Rob on bass joined a few albums ago.

Before Rob joined, I saw the band perform at the now gone and well remembered Portland punk club, The Satyricon, as an opening act for Man Or Astroman. The day stands out in my memory as it was one of the hottest days of that year. My friend and I drank beers while seated in the shade at one of the tables on the sidewalk in front of the club. We met Buffi from the band when she asked us to keep an eye on her stuff while she dealt with some sort of band business. No good deed goes unrewarded, and Buffi was kind enough to put us on her guest list for the show. I was electrified by the band, Buffi seemed like a cool garage rock chick, chewing gum while pounding her single drum and cymbal. While sinewy Clay Reed was upfront, his singing a mix of Lou Reed drawl and Richard Hell whelp, and his punk rock slash and burn guitar solos jolted me into the next day. The band was impressive enough that Dave and I left after their show, and did not stick around for Man Or Astroman. Plus it was something like 102 degrees outside, and close to that inside the club. We had to get out.

“Flesh Colored Paint” was produced in New York City, by Matt Verta-Ray, perhaps better known as a guitarist in the band, Speedball Baby, then as a producer, but lately he has been working up an impressive production resume, and as such any record with his name attached would be well worth checking out. Case in point, this new one by Subsonics.

Continue reading →

Keeping Up with the Jones – Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami

In Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami (2017), director Sophie Fiennes follows Jones, documenting her from 2008 while she was recording her last album, Hurricane, in Jamaica. The documentary is an intimate fly-on-the-wall affair, shot cinema-verite style in the fashion of tour classics like D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. The movie conveys Jones’ many personas as an artist, performer, mother, lover, model, singer and business manager who has influenced and challenged the milieu of music, fashion, gender norms and art since achieving international stardom in the late 1970’s.
Continue reading →

Let The fundraising begin!

This week is a big one. Why? Because it’s when the radio community (in Portland and around the world) and all Freeform Portland volunteers rally together to raise dollars to make Freeform Portland the mightiest station it can be. Freeform volunteers (Did you know, we are all volunteers!?) listeners, friends, and family are the bloodline of Freeform Portland. Without community support, we wouldn’t exist. Nope. Nada. Never.

This year we are aiming to raise $20,000. With your help, we can be everywhere you go – anywhere where there is an internet connection, and on the dial in Portland with an improved FM range. It’s all very exciting stuff. More listener reach = a bigger, more badass community. Win. Win.

A few reasons people choose to donate their dollars to Freeform Portland Radio:

  • Airwaves are a part of the common treasury, they belong to all of us.
  • Freeform Portland is community radio — that’s you and me and our neighbors. Not some corporation in some city far away. It’s OUR station.
  • Regardless of genre, Freeform DJs play what commercial stations ignore.
  • Freeform Portland is a huge supporter of the local music scene; from shows that focus on Portland-based musicians, to live-remote broadcasts from local and live music events every other week, Freeform supports the well-being of our local culture.
  • Freeform Portland goes beyond curation. We appeal to your sense of musical adventure. I mean, where else are you going to hear a gem like this:

If you’re tired of hearing the same old, same old… if you’re tired of the endless repetition and the sanitized playlists you get from the corporate-run radio stations, then join us. Make a gift to Freeform Portland HERE.

Thanks for supporting Freeform Portland. We love you!

5 cover songs (at one point I did not know were covers)

Believe it or not, before the internet and music deciphering phone apps, you could sometimes hear a song, and not know that was a cover.

This sort of circumstance would happen fairly often when I was a young, naive music enthusiast. It takes a while to develop a sense of history, and read the landmarks of the Rock n’ roll map.

Here are a few covers that I did not recognize as covers when I first heard them:
Continue reading →

KING BLACK ACID/ THE FUR COATS/ STREETCAR CONDUCTORS AT MISSISSIPPI STUDIOS

I had an out-of-town trip planned for the weekend of April 27th, but when I got word about the King Black Acid, The Fur Coats, and Streetcar Conductors show at Mississippi Studios, I immediately postponed it. King Black Acid is a local act I never miss, and The Fur Coats are amazing! I’ve never seen the opening act, a new band called Streetcar Conductors, so I arrive early to be sure I don’t miss a beat.
Continue reading →