The Harmony That Keeps Trappist-1’s 7 Earth-size Worlds From Colliding

Hello, loyal readers. Caught in the Act is caught on vacation this week, but we wanted to share this very cool article on the music of the spheres from The New York Times. Enjoy, and we’ll be back with a freshly minted blog next week.

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A visualization of the orbits of the seven planets circling the star Trappist-1. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Kenneth Chang

In February, astronomers announced the discovery of a nearby star with seven Earth-size planets, and at least some of the planets seemed to be in a zone that could provide cozy conditions for life.

The finding of these planets circling the star Trappist-1 40 light-years away came with a bit of mystery. The orbits of the planets are packed tightly, and computer calculations by the discoverers suggested that the gravitational jostling would send the planets colliding with each other or flying apart, some to deep space, others spiraling into the star and destruction.

Now new research provides an explanation for the dynamics of how this planetary system could have formed and remained in stable harmony over billions of years.

“It’s actually a very special system,” said Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the lead author of a paper appearing in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The scientist in the office next door to Dr. Tamayo found musical inspiration from the Trappist-1 planets. Matt Russo, an astrophysicist who is also a musician, turned to Dr. Tamayo’s computer simulations for help turning the orbits into notes, and they have produced a sort of music of the spheres for the 21st century.

“I think Trappist is the most musical system we’ll ever discover,” Dr. Russo said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

While the planets are roughly the size of Earth, the Trappist-1 system is very different from our solar system. Trappist-1 is a dwarf star that is much smaller and colder than our sun, and all seven of the planets orbit within six million miles of the star. By contrast, Mercury, the innermost planet of our solar system, is 36 million miles from our sun. Earth is nearly 93 million miles away.

Since the Trappist-1 planets are so close to their star, they orbit quickly, and their “year” — the time to complete one orbit — ranges from 1.5 days to 19 days.

The original discoverers noted that those orbits were almost exactly in what scientists call “resonance.” That is, the second planet completes five orbits in almost exactly the time the first planet makes eight. The third planet completes three orbits for every five orbits of the second planet, and the fourth planet makes two orbits for every three orbits of the third. The other planets are also in resonance. (In our solar system, Pluto is in resonance with Neptune, with Pluto making two orbits for every three of Neptune.)

Yet when they plugged the data into computer simulations, the orbits quickly became unstable, falling apart in less than a million years. Even when they added the effects of tides on the planets, which tend to push planets toward more circular, stable orbits, the system still often fell apart within a few million years, a cosmic instant compared with the estimated age of the Trappist-1 star (three billion to eight billion years).

“We were missing some physics,” said Amaury H.M.J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and a member of the team that described the Trappist-1 planets. Also missing: exact information about the shape and tilt of the orbits.

Dr. Tamayo and his colleagues took a different approach.

Instead of just looking at the orbits of the planets today, they looked at possible ways that the planets got to where they are now. The planets formed out of a disk of gas and dust. After that formation, the remaining disk would have nudged the planets inward, and those nudges tend to push the planets toward the stable resonances.

Dr. Tamayo offered the analogy of musicians in an orchestra. “It’s not enough for members to merely keep time,” he said.

The missing information about orbits is like musicians playing out of tune, he said. “By contrast,” Dr. Tamayo said, “simulating the formation of the system in its birth disk is analogous to the orchestra tuning itself before playing. When we create these harmonized systems, we find that the majority survive for as long as we can run our supercomputer simulations.”

In more than 300 computer runs, each simulating five million years, the vast majority stayed stable, Dr. Tamayo said.

Then they ran 21 simulations each tracing about 50 million years of orbits, and 17 of those were stable. Each of the longer simulations consumed a week of supercomputer time. That suggests the orbits are stable for several billion years, although it does not provide definitive proof.

“That’s basically as long as we can hope to run our simulations,” Dr. Tamayo said.

Jack J. Lissauer, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who works on the space agency’s Kepler planet-finding mission, said the new results fit what was expected. “If the planets are indeed locked in resonances, it’s quite reasonable for them to be stable for very long times,” he said. “This wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t shown previously.”

Dr. Triaud said the new results could help refine their observations. “It’s a really beautiful analysis,” he said of Dr. Tamayo’s approach. “We will be looking at our data to see if they match what they propose.”

The resonant orbits also inspired Dr. Russo, a guitarist in the indie pop group Rvnners. He and a bandmate, Andrew Santaguida, started playing around with the data. They arbitrarily assigned a particular musical note — C — to the outermost planet. That set the notes for the other planets based on their relative orbital periods, although they are not exactly in tune.

TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System Translated Directly Into Music (Video by SYSTEM Sounds):

The resonances drift over time, probably because of more complicated gravitational interactions and tidal effects.

“You can tell something is a bit twisted,” Dr. Russo said. “The notes are little wonky.”

In the musical animation, each planet plays its note each time it passes in front of the Trappist-1 star, with the orbit of the outer planet set at two seconds.

In addition, they assigned a specific percussion sound for each time a planet caught up with its neighbor. “It turned out to be very similar to a very natural drum progression,” Dr. Russo said.

So far, Trappist-1 is the only musically enchanting planetary system in the galaxy. In no other system are the planetary orbits stacked in resonance. Dr. Russo did a similar musical treatment of Kepler 90, another star with seven planets. “It’s just horrendous,” Dr. Russo said. “It’s very uncomfortable to listen to.”

That may turn out to indicate something different about how planets form around dwarf stars versus larger stars.

The scientists are releasing the computer software for anyone to explore the music of planetary orbits.

 

A version of this article, by Kenneth Chang, appears in print on May 16, 2017, on Page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: Perfect Timing: How a Celestial Neighbor Holds It Together. It was published online on May 10, 2017. Read it on The New York Times website here.

 

Live and Local

The Straz Center brings “think globally, act locally” to the performing arts.

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Live and Local artists performing at the Straz Center’s Open House.

If you’ve been around The Straz for the past few years, you’ve noticed the changes transforming our outdoor spaces to places meant for getting together, enjoying some cool art, having conversations and making the most of our primo waterfront property. We are blessed with one of the greatest downtown locations, so it makes sense that people would come here to relax, catch a sunset, enjoy some food and drinks and take in the creative vibes.

One of the best ways to soak in these spoils is to stop by on the weekend for Live and Local.

This free performance series presents a local musician in the Jaeb Courtyard, our magical outdoor play space complete with twinkle lights and café seating for supreme al fresco chill time.

The man in charge of Live and Local is Joel Lisi, who is himself something of a magical experience, as many longtime Tampanians recognize him as the guitarist for the jazz power instrumental trio Beanstalk and the jazz improv group Ghetto Love Sugar.

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Joel Lisi performing with Beanstalk.

“This is really cool, man, you know,” he says about booking acts for the stage and growing the series from year to year. “There used to be a metallic statue in the courtyard, maybe it belonged to the city and the city took it back, but it was gone, and all we had was landscaping rocks and this round rotundo space. We had to get some entertainment in for an event that weekend and we thought, ‘hey, there’s this weird rock space. Let’s put someone there.’ Because of my music background, I was asked to find someone. So, I called a friend, and we had him perform where the statue used to be.”

While gathered at the event that night, Lisi and a few Straz execs realized they were onto something. “We saw how the trees create this half-dome orchestra shell over the stage, and we were like ‘wow—this is the perfect outdoor music space’,” Lisi says. They began to strategize, thinking it would be cool to host a free performance before a weekend Broadway show (but pay the performer, of course). Some Straz patrons noted that the season programming lacked local artists, so this new space seemed to be a perfect solution.

“Roberto DeBourg—he’s known as Chachi—was our first musician. This was before SteamHeat Café or any of our plans for that space had fleshed out. But, we tried it before a Saturday night Broadway show, and it worked,” Lisi says. “That was the birth and it’s grown from there. Now, The Cube [featuring Broadway-themed graffiti art by Eric Hornsby] is there—and SteamHeat [the coffee shop serving local Buddy Brew roasts]. Everybody wants to hang out there. We went from six performances the first season to 20 this year. So, Live and Local is about exposing people to local culture, to local artists. It’s nice to make a connection to the local scene when you’re a big performing arts center.”

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Eric Hornsby painting The Cube before Motown The Musical arrived earlier this month. Check out more of his art on Instagram: @artist_esh

The Live and Local series still coincides mostly with the Saturday Broadway show, but artists perform before the Sunday opera matinee and before certain other big shows like Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Lisi curates the pairings, making sure the Live and Local act meshes with the tone of the main stage show. “I try to theme it, so yeah, there would be someone like Greg West, a rock guy, before a show like American Idiot, and Francesca Ani, this crazy-talented 17-year-old singer-songwriter who just won a big radio contest, before Nutcracker. It’s taken on a life of its own, and we’ve even been able to get some of our Live and Local artists to open for big touring acts playing The Straz.”

Check out this clip of Francesca performing at the Straz Center Open House in 2016:

Always on the lookout for solid Live and Local talent, Lisi keeps a generous spirit about getting Tampa Bay artists on the stage. “Yes, I always need people. I’ve been in a restaurant and some guy in the corner is killing it, and I’ll approach him and ask if he wants to perform. I’ll take suggestions, too.”

If you want to be considered as a Live and Local artist, send an email to joel.lisi@strazcenter.org with relevant details and where you are in the Tampa Bay area (gotta keep it local, folks).

If you want to know the lineup this season, we should have the bulk of it on the website by the end of August. For now, bookmark us and check back regularly. Here’s our Live and Local page.

“The bottom line,” Lisi says, “is that it’s just fun. You can come early for your show and hang out, not have to fight traffic. You can enjoy some live entertainment outside with your friends and just have a good time. That’s what it’s all about.”

Party Rocker in the House Tonight: Fun Facts about Motown Mogul Berry Gordy

Everybody just have a good time.

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Next week, the Berry Gordy bio MOTOWN THE MUSICAL returns by popular demand to Morsani Hall. The musical tracks through Gordy’s journey as the star-making superpower of the Detroit “Motown” sound. His stint as the emperor of Hitsville, U.S.A. launched the artists who shaped American pop music: The Temptations, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, The Jackson 5, Martha & The Vandellas, The Commodores, Lionel Richie and more.

But what about the more human side of the legend? Surely he has quirks and surprising factoids about his life, right?

Yep.

In 1938, Gordy—like 70 million other people—listened to “The Fight of the Century,” a two-minute slugfest between American hero Joe Louis and Nazi darling Max Schmeling*. Louis, who was born in Alabama but lived in Detroit, bargained for this rematch because Schmeling had knocked out Louis in an unprecedented upset in 1936. Schmeling’s defeat of Louis foreboded the rising Nazi power and plunged African-Americans, who were terrorized by rising violence of the KKK, into despair. The fight was way more than a boxing match: it was a national portent of the fate of our nation.

So, you can imagine what kind of effect a Joe Louis K.O. win in the first round would have on a boy listening to the match. On the radio. In Detroit.

Berry Gordy became a boxer. (The song “Hey Joe” from the musical came from this moment in Gordy’s life.)

He fought 15 Golden Glove matches. He won 12.

In 1948, Berry Gordy appeared on the same fight bill with Joe Louis.

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His boxing career was cut short when was drafted to the Army to serve in the Korean War. He served from 1951-1953.

Gordy loved jazz, especially Stan Kenton and Thelonious Monk. After the war, he opened a record store. It failed. He worked for a time at the Ford Motor Company factory upholstering cars on the assembly line, where he used the monotony to compose songs.

It’s worth noting that Gordy had no real formal music training. Despite that, he won a talent contest with his song “Berry’s Boogie” in grade school and sold some of his assembly-line compositions to Decca Records.

He has eight children. The youngest son, Stefan (a.k.a. Redfoo), makes up half of the electronic duo LMFAO. The other half, Skylar (a.k.a. Sky Blu), is Gordy’s grandson.

Though he dropped out of high school and later earned his GED in the Army, Gordy holds honorary degrees from Michigan State University and Occidental College.

Gordy is a vegan.

He is also President Jimmy Carter’s cousin. They’re related on Carter’s mother’s side (Jimmy Carter’s mom was Bessie Lillian Gordy, the niece of Berry’s grandfather).

Mind blown? We thought so.

Want to find out which Motown artist you are? Take this fun quiz from the MOTOWN THE MUSICAL website.

*We’d like to note that Max Schmeling, according to historical notes, did not support the Nazi cause but was more or less swept up as a propaganda tool and later distanced himself from their ideology. On Kristallnacht, he provided sanctuary for two Jewish boys as they ran from the Gestapo.

The Marchingest, Playingest Band in the Land

Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 and the invention of the black marching band style

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Historical photo from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

In 1989, when the French government needed an act to represent American music for their 200th anniversary Bastille Day celebration marking French independence, did they choose Madonna? No. Michael Jackson? No. New Kids on the Block? Quintuple nope.

They chose Florida A&M University’s Marching 100—a university marching band.  Why?

Because there wasn’t anything, anywhere like The 100. Period. “They illustrated the essence of American music,” said the parade’s artistic director, Jean-Paul Goude, in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. And, at the parade, FAMU’s Marching 100 did not disappoint. Instead of a bright, healthy dose of traditional marching band fare, the Marching 100 delivered a non-stop set of James Brown, complete with high-stepping, complicated choreography and the old-school hip-swiveling swagger of the Rattlers’ signature marching style. The Parisians went bonkers.

In this YouTube video capturing the 1989 Good Morning America report on the event, you can see the representative Marching 100 rehearsing, touring the Louvre and even trying to teach their Parisian hosts to moonwalk. The end of the video shows a dress rehearsal of their performance.

The Miami Herald dubbed the Marching 100 “the marchingest, playingest band in the land.” CNN flat out announced them as “the best band in the entire universe.” And while there are scores of superb, unforgettable, unstoppable black marching bands from the rich heritage of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we want to shine a light on the Marching 100 in honor of the upcoming performance of DRUMLine Live, which celebrates the black marching band style we all know and love today—which happened to be invented right here in Florida thanks to FAMU’s legendary band director, Dr. William P. Foster.

I.    Dr. William P. Foster and a (Very Brief, Grossly Oversimplified) History* of the Black Marching Band

Of course, the story traces back to war, slavery and the pervasive fearful attitudes white folks had about black and brown people. By now, we know this theme well, especially as an audience of the performing arts in America, where the record shows that the influence and creative contributions of black people is a real American tale of victory in the face of adverse and often deadly circumstances.

So, the marching band story begins somewhere around 1738, when the Virginia legislature conscripted free people of color for the military; however, whites were scared of an uprising, so PoCs couldn’t have guns. What they could have, though, were instruments. They made a perfect drum and fife corps.

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1st Army Post Band in Souilly, France, 1918. (Photo from BBC’s Music in the Great War: Military Bands)

Trained in the military bands during the War of 1812, black musicians formed several all-black brass bands in some of the same cities that would birth American music: New Orleans, Philly, New York. These post-war military bands evolved to play social functions, too, and entered mainstream life as cotillion bands. As time and wars wore on, the status of the military band elevated, and ex-military band members served their communities in auxiliary bands that played at public events, for volunteer fire departments, at lodges and for holidays.

Brass bands took off like wildfire across the country, and arguably the most fertile ground for black musicians was New Orleans. Under African American leadership, the city formed benevolent societies in the 1880s whose many social events needed music and stellar musicianship. While the black brass band musical identity was taking shape, its rural counterpart, self-taught musicians heavily influenced by spirituals, jubilees and the human voice, began establishing itself throughout the South. These musicians’ “singing horns” mimicked the up-and-down field calls, growling and sliding of the human voice, and their style met the New Orleans style during the musician exodus northward in the early 20th century.

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Band leader Lt. James Reese Europe with the 369th Infantry Regiment aka the Harlem Hellfighters, 1919.

By the time WWI rolled around, the Harlem Hellfighters military band was arguably the best in the world, as it encapsulated what had been happening musically in the black community since the foundling drum and fife corps days.

Take this history and add the fact that, in an effort to create equitable post-Civil-War educational opportunities, the 1890 Land Grant Act helped start 17 black land-grant colleges in the South (and some border states) focusing on agricultural, mechanical and industrial education.

Hence, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Florida A&M University, or, FAMU. Bands played a small role on the campuses although the colleges boasted superior music programs. In time, veterans of the wars and those men who performed in marching bands like the Harlem Hellfighters found themselves in band director positions on the campuses of Tuskeegee University and Alabama A&M.

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Dr. William P. Foster, creator of the world famous FAMU Marching 100 band. (Photo: Victor R. Gaines)

In 1946, FAMU specifically wanted to put itself on the map. To do so, they would need a fine band. Better than Tuskeegee’s. They hired Dr. William P. Foster, a man renowned for his high ethical standards in life and in musicianship, and he took on the struggling FAMU band program. Although the university only had 16 band members and 17 mostly broken instruments, Dr. Foster pulled together a 45-piece marching band for the start of the fall 1946 term. It was the first of fifty-two years that Dr. Foster would serve as FAMU’s director of bands. 1946 marked the start of his “philosophy of life” approach, demanding excellence in musicianship, service, academics and personal achievement.

But 1947. That’s when the magic happened.

II.    Pageantry and Showmanship

In case you don’t know, HBCU football games are about the band. The half-time show is where it’s at and where you’ll see the high-stepping, cymbal-bowing, whistle-tooting razz-ma-tazz artistry of all that is the one-upping showmanship of the black marching band extravaganza.

It started with Dr. Foster’s simple decision to break from the traditional marching mold. In 1947, his second year as FAMU’s director of bands, he had them execute some dance steps to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” during the half-time show. Nobody had seen a marching band do such a thing. People went nuts; they loved it; the band loved it. Dr. Foster knew he was on to something big, something good. He started innovating, mixing drills, dance, precision and developing signature marching styles (everyone knows FAMU’s “death cadence” or “slow one sequence” that accelerates to 320 steps per minute).

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Once Dr. Foster and the FAMU band, coined the Marching 100 though they now exceed 400 members, broke the mold, there was no going back. Other HBCU marching bands took their cues, borrowing here and there from FAMU but eventually finding their own styles and signature moves, which added a different dimension to inter-collegiate competition. Touchdowns were one thing, but half-time shows—which Foster called “pageants” and the name stuck—were the real action on the field.

“The Marching 100 was, and still is, the identity of Florida A&M University,” says Straz Center Chief of Security Dan Mathis, who is a proud FAMU alum. “When people mentioned FAMU, the conversation was always about the band. The games were about the band. When the Florida Classic was still played here in Tampa Stadium, I dreamed as a kid about running out of the tunnel as a football player while the band played. Everyone looked forward to the half-time show. The half-time shows were epic against our in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University–the formations, the dance routines, the tuba section, and the dynamic drum majors.”

His favorite part? “The tubas!,” he laughs.

Dan says watch this video if you want to see some action from the Marching 100 tuba section:

The Straz Center’s marketing manager for the Patel Conservatory education programs, Stephanie Pemberton, was a drum major at Blake High School. Their band director, a FAMU grad and member of the Marching 100, gave her the legendary training that put FAMU on the map. “He originated Blake High School’s Marching Yellow Jackets to model after the Marching 100,” she says. “We did 90-degree high-step entrances and exits from the stadium as well as extensive dance numbers involving all musicians in the band. At this point of my musical career, I had already been playing for 10+ years—but this was a whole new experience in the world of entertaining. Our football team was lousy, but people came to the games to dance in the stands. It was so much fun. Even now, as a 36-year-old woman, I can still hold the ‘flamingo stand’ he made us do. And do. And do.”

III.    FAMU: Getting Personal in the Historical Context

Geri Kelly, who works as the community programs coordinator at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory, graduated from FAMU in 1968. “I can remember watching the band on the field at A&M when I was a child,” she says. “The pride and the excitement that the band generates is what convinced me to attend Florida A&M.  Although the academic program in theater was one of the strongest in Historically Black Colleges, I felt a sense of pride just to say I attended FAMU, the home of the Marching 100.  I can remember throughout my adult life, making the effort to be before the TV to see them perform at three Super Bowls, in parades for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and on 20/20 as the main guest.”

For Geri, like most HBCU students and alums, the point of the pageant, of the band, goes deeper than the showmanship or the celebrity. “It is about the culture and the history in music that they keep that sense of pride alive in most blacks, whether they attended FAMU or not.  My entire family have a strong sense of pride in the Marching 100, and most did not attend the school.  It is more than that . . . it’s a way of life. It’s our heritage” says Geri.

Black marching band dance, drum, music and precision execution combined with its reimagining of what a marching band could, should and would do grew into an aspect of black culture and identity that is a singular expression of African American sensibilities. Marching bands represent a cultural legacy and are symbols of an indomitable spirit of victory, handed down through the generations since the start of the HBCUs at the end of the Civil War. The evolution of the black marching band is an important thread of the story of blackness in America that is, viewed with a wide-angle lens, an important story in understanding America, too.

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Just a reminder that DRUMLine Live will be more fun with friends. Groups of 10 or more get a special discount, so if you’ve got lots of folks who want to go, call our Group Sales Office and get hooked up. 813.222.1016 or 813.222.1047 or email groups@strazcenter.org.

*historical information found in Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands, a UNC-Chapel Hill master’s thesis in folklore by William Dukes Lewis.

Nacho Everyday Percussionist

Nacho Arimany’s years working with rhythm showed him how natural harmonic patterns heal the human body and mind.

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At first glance, Nacho Arimany can easily be confused for a European version of holistic healer J.P. Sears in the “Ultra Spiritual” spoofs.

But after a few moments into an interview or demonstration, Arimany reveals himself as the real deal. Here, he explains the cultural component of the recent neuroscientific findings about the effects of movement and rhythm on the brain:

Known around the world as “one of the most sought after Flamenco percussionists, composers and musicians for the brain,” ground-breaking, multi-cultural instrumentalist Arimany has mastered sound-scaping instruments from tiny harps to singing bowls to gourds. His work in bands and studying diverse ethnic communities and their percussion instruments drew Arimany down a rabbit hole of Fibonacci perfection when he began to make the rhythmic connections between mathematical truths like the golden ratio, frequency in the natural world, and the effects of certain resonances on the human body.

Arimany’s work rests on the foundation that 432 hertz (Hz) is the resonance of biological rhythms, termed “sound biology.” Humans exposed to instruments tuning to 432 Hz undergo physiological changes that enhance cellular harmony—bodies and minds literally tune themselves to this frequency (as bodies are chock full of biological rhythms). The result, Arimany explains, can improve fine motor skills, mental health and promote brain function through harmonic resonance. Over time, he created the Arimany Method, a blend of movement and rhythm used as a meditation to create “new architecture in the brain.”

Nacho Arimany, who performs for the first time at The Straz with Flamenco guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, will serve in his traditional role as multi-talented percussionist to Villegas’s famed flying fingers. You’ll see percussion incarnate, and just know, if you start to feel an unfamiliar sense of cosmic resonance, that Arimany may have taken you on the magical 432 carpet ride.

Helping Y’all People Notice

How Music Wrote the Lives of the Men of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

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Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (aka The Bad Boys of Jazz) are seven brothers from the south side of Chicago.

Ask a member of the seven-piece band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble how they got their name, and you may get a surprise answer.

It started as an acronym for the band’s mission: Helping Young People Notice . . . hypnotic. Notice what, though?

Music. Jazz. Funk. Themselves. The power of young black men channeling the cosmos the way their father taught them.

The band, all sons of famed Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran (Sun Ra Arkestra, Chaka Khan, The Pharaohs, among others), began their apprenticeships with their dad early in life. Some started as young as four years old, but all had instruments in hand by their sixth birthdays. Cohran, who grounded himself in elevating the arts scene in Chicago and working with community youth, had a sweeping and macro view of humanity’s relationship to music. Cohran wanted to know his place in the cosmos, and he knew music held the answer. He studied all over the world to integrate a sound and teaching technique that connected musicians (and, by extension, their audiences) to the harmonies of the universe.

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Jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran. The honorific “Kelan,” which means “holy scripture,” was given to him by Chinese Muslims while he was visiting China.

He implemented this view in his teaching, and his sons, masters as they are of Afrobeat, R&B, funk, soul, traditional jazz and hip hop, always weave their music back to the over-picture: that their sometimes strange improv instrumental tangents construct a tone link to the nonstop harmonies emerging from planetary electromagnetic fields. They have, as they say, some harmonies that can only be heard in space.

… Now imagine Jupiter speeded up with a funky James Brown drum and horn section:

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble took to the streets of Chicago early in their career where they grew a grassroots fan base and earned a dope reputation purely by word-of-mouth. In time, “helping young people notice” outgrew their neighborhood radius, and HBE realized they were destined for bigger things. Thus, “helping young people notice” became “helping y’all people notice” as HBE began its interplanetary mission as “superheroes of jazz sent to rescue those in distress—and that is the entire musical community of planet Earth,” as they say in the British documentary about HBE and their work with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen.

These men, these brothers, these direct descendants of musical spiritual master Phil Cohran and veterans of the mean streets of southside Chicago, do not merely play music. They are made of it. They are acutely aware of the role jazz, hip hop, soul, funk, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and the intricate musicality of Asia and Africa contribute to their organic make up. This acute awareness transmits through their musical compositions and has the ability to reach into the soul of the listener.

Such is the way of HBE.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performs at The Straz this February, and we are thrilled that they will be holding two school outreach workshops, one at Dunbar Elementary and the other to be determined. It is our privilege and mission to give local young people access to artists like HBE and do our part to “help young people notice” the world is large, diverse and full of incredibly cool people and opportunities to connect themselves to the bigger picture.

 

This program is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

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Call Me Xalam, Banjar, Strum Strum or Merrywang

The story of America’s instrument

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Xalam, or khalam, is the Wolof name for traditional stringed instruments from West Africa. (Photo: http://www.instrumundo.blogspot.com)

The meek and pluck-twangy sidekick to guitar and fiddle didn’t get its propers before Deliverance ruined an entire generation on banjo music and canoe trips to rural Georgia. The lone ambassador of a spectacular and truly (colonial) American history, the banjo is considered by folk musicologists to be the only original American folk instrument. The guitar and violin already existed in their current forms as did Celtic drums, piano and upright (a.k.a. “double”) bass. But the banjo . . . what’s up with that?

Known to Europeans as a banjar, bangie, banshaw, strum strum or merrywang, the banjo originated in the Gambia region of Senegal and traveled with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, eventually inching north to the Southern plantations of America when enslaved people built their home instruments from local resources—gourds and animals.

An animal hide stretched over a gourd with three or four gut strings, this instrument, called a xalam in Africa, stayed among the enslaved, buoying their spirits and keeping them musically connected to their homeland and to each other, giving them an outlet for personal expression and propping up their dancing in the absence of traditional drums. (Interesting side note: when slavers took the Africans’ drums away out of fear of rebellion, the enslaved took up a practice called “pattin’ juba,” using their hands and feet for intricate clapping and stamping to hold the polyrhythms.)

Known to be some of the most gifted musicians in the new world, Africans often played for white communities, introducing them to polyrhythmic music and advanced singing techniques. So, the xalam’s American “banjar” form morphed in the 1800s when white folks fell in love with its sound and capabilities. Although “merrywang,” sadly, didn’t catch on as a popular name, it’s easy to see the short linguistic jump from “banjar” or “bangie” to “banjo.”

Thus, the banjo made a rather rickety bridge—but a bridge nonetheless!—across cultures, with this ungainly instrument as an unlikely taproot for diverse American folkways. The Africans trained others in their traditional “down-picking” style, which formed the basis for how to play American banjo. Anglos restructured the gourd design to a wood frame and added metal strings. Somewhere along the line the all-American fifth “drone” string appeared on this frame design with the frame itself shifting from wood to metal. Early historians credited this addition to Joel Sweeny of North Carolina though more recent study casts that claim into doubt, as longtime banjo maker Jim Hartel notes that African designs of xalams or calabash-style African banjos already included a short string similar to the drone. So, we’re not 100% sure how the string appeared, just that it did when the banjo diffused across the race line to be an instrument for everybody. That addition, however, made the contemporary banjo a uniquely American folk instrument—a circular monument to successful cross-pollination of cultural traditions (it’s unfortunate minstrelsy period notwithstanding).

Banjo maker Jim Hartel and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens give context and history of the minstrel banjo:

With the new sounds emanating from the open-backed, round body and metal strings, what we now recognize as “frailing” or the “claw-hammer” technique mastered by such banjo superstars as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs evolved from the down-picking style. Banjo players today pull from both techniques, as evidenced by Newgrass legend Bela Fleck and incredible, Louisiana-based roots-musician Cedric Watson.

All hail the merrywang, a singular sound of our complex and important cultural roots.