Photo: Kelan Phil Cohran @ the 2014 CIMMFEST, Concord Music Hall | © Jamie Bernstein. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
The next show will air on Sunday, July 9, 2017 from 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM Monday Eastern Standard Time on WBAI, 99.5 FM in the NYC metro area or streaming online at wbai.org. This show is a memorial broadcast in honor of multi instrumentalist, composer, bandleader, and teacher Kelan Phil Cohran featuring remembrances from artists Kahlil El’Zafar, Maia, Aquilla Graves Sadilla and son Gabriel Hubert, who is one of the member of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
“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. It is the Hour of ringing, rouse, of ferment-festival. On Forty-third and Langley black furnaces resent ancient legislatures of play and scruple and practical gelatin. They keep the fever in, fondle the fever. All worship the Wall.” – Gwendolyn Brooks, “Two Dedications: II The Wall August 27, 1967”
Kelan Phil Cohran was born in Oxford, Mississippi (May 8, 1927 – June 28, 2017) and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. ‘Kelan’ is an honorific meaning ‘holy scripture’ bestowed on him by Chinese Muslims during a visit to China. He played trumpet in bands led by Jay McShann in the early 1950s, and then in a U.S. Navy band.
He was introduced to the Sun Ra Arkestra by John Gilmore in 1959. He appeared on the albums Fate In A Pleasant Mood and Angels and Demons at Play among others. He played mostly trumpet and sometimes stringed instruments such as the zither. He can be heard with The Arkestra on “Rocket Number Nine,” “Fate In A Pleasant Mood,” “Holiday For Soul Dance” and “We Travel The Spaceways,” but his most striking contribution was his ukelin zither playing on “Angels And Demons At Play.” Cohran’s harp-like fills working against Sun Ra’s organ on “Music From The World Tomorrow” and his abstract stabs against astral flute on the title track epitomise The Arkestra’s ‘black to the future’ concept like no other early Sun Ra recordings.
When the Arkestra moved from Chicago in 1961, Cohran declined to accompany them. In 1965 he took part in the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The first meeting was held in Cohran’s house on his birthday.
Early in his career, he invented an instrument he called the Frankiphone or the Space Harp, which is actually an electrified mbira or kalimba; he played it on some of Sun Ra’s early albums. This instrument inspired Maurice White to use an electrified Kalimba in performance with Earth, Wind and Fire. “On the Beach” features the Frankiphone on the title track, as well as a piece called “New Frankiphone Blues”.
He formed the Artistic Heritage Ensemble with Pete Cosey, future members of Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section and Motown percussionist “Master” Henry Gibson, among others. By this time, he was playing the harp, cornet, French horn, baritone saxophone and percussion. The group recorded the album On the Beach around 1967, which there was a celebration scheduled on the day of this broadcast in Chicago to recognize its 50th anniversary .
In the autumn of 1967, Cohran set up the Affro-Arts Theatre as a permanent home for the kind of events that were taking place on the beach that summer. “The band played Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that’s how we paid our bills because we had a popular band,” Cohran says. “We trained music, history; we had Hebrew, Arabic and Swahili taught free; civilization classes, forums. We also held conferences there, one conference of Third World countries.” The reissue of On The Beach includes a live version of their most famous track, “Unity”, recorded at the Affro-Arts Theatre on 15 February 1968.
Unfortunately, not everyone involved in the Affro-Arts Theatre was of one thought. After some internal turmoil, at the end of 1968 Cohran left the group and the theatre to teach at Malcolm X Junior College.
Several of Cohran’s sons make up seven of the nine members of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, which consists of four trumpets, two trombones, one euphonium, a sousaphone and drums. Cohran taught voice and music to inner city youth and adults at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies. He died in Chicago on June 28, 2017 at the age of 90.
(Bio adapted from Wikipedia)
This program is hosted, engineered, produced, and edited by Joyce Jones. Listen for our On the Bandstand segment with NYC metro area appearances of Suga’ guests at the end of the first hour with Associate Producer Hank Williams.
Watch “Brother Phil” sing “Boon to a Loon” in this 2014 live performance in São Paulo.
Watch Cohran play the Frankiphone in this short clip.
Watch Cohran join the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble to play “Cuernavaca” in this live clip.
Hank Williams is assistant producer for Suga’ in My Bowl and produces the weekly “On the Bandstand” segment as well as running the show’s website and blog, where he has reviewed several jazz festivals. His writing has also appeared in Left Turn magazine and American Music Review. He teaches at Lehman and Hunter colleges in the City University of New York system.