Walking along Schenectady Saturday evening on my way to see the aptly named Hypnotic Brass Ensemble perform at the Weeksville Heritage Center, I heard symphonic horn blare and the left-right pound of the snare reverberating along the Avenue. Could that be HBE? “No,” I thought. The feeling was more Drumline than Second City and I found myself momentarily lost in high school reverie, resisting an incredibly strong urge to high-step and twirl a baton, or at least, my umbrella. The source of sound finally came into view, a marching band practicing with chops to rival Grambling’s. There’s nothing like a Black marching band, and here was one in Central Brooklyn, prelude to the absolute delight that was to come.
When I arrived at Weeksville, the set was already in full swing, the small but enthusiastic group of spectators dancing their way to Nirvana. The eight Chicago-bred siblings (backed by a drummer) who comprise HBE, all sons of former Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter, Phil Cohran, blow with a fluency that attests to the fact that each has been playing since the age of four or five.
YouTube video: Erin R. Stevens
Given the proximity of the Kingsborough Houses–with a largely African-American population and courtyard art-installation known as “The Wall” (a sculptural frieze by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé) and the historical significance of the carefully preserved Historic Hunterfly Road Houses, the sight of nine young Black men in a line-up that exalts rather than vilifies them, the performance was glorious relief from the pervasive media notions of beleaguered Blackness.
Elissa Blount Moorhead, Director of Programming and Exhibitions at Weeksville commented that the ancestors had been roused. I think she’s right, and they, right proud.
Harlem’s loss is Brooklyn’s gain. Detail from Richmond Barthé’s “Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho.” Photo: Frederick V. Nielsen
The 80-ft frieze was inspired by a 1930 African-American play called The Green Pastures and was created under the auspices of the WPA for installation at the Harlem River Houses in 1937. It was however, installed at the Kingsborough Houses when they opened in 1941 in Brooklyn.
The Wall, circa 1944. From The New York City Housing Authority Collection of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives
Note on Weeksville: In this urban oasis straddling Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, I’ve seen stellar performances by Olu Dara and a fiercely-shod Imani Uzuri. I’ve recently missed those by Sparlha Swa, Game Rebellion and an amazing-by-all-accounts string set by Tamar Kali. These performances are free and though Weeksville has generous corporate and foundation support, their exciting plans for growth can be served by individual donations as well. Visit the website, www.weeksvillesociety.org to learn more about Weeksville history, legacy and projections for the future.