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Delicious Duo

[whitespace] Cibo Matto
Extra Sugar, Extra Salt: Yuka Honda (left) and Miho Hatori serve up terse, saucy phrasing on 'Stereotype A.'.

Cibo Matto fights against musical stereotypes on its new album

By Michelle Goldberg

YUKA HONDA and Miho Hatori, the two women who make up Cibo Matto, are too cute for their own good. When they released their debut album, Viva! La Woman in 1998, many couldn't see beyond Honda and Hatori's adorable faces and quirky lyrics to the genre-fusing genius of their music.

Instead of being recognized as avant-garde innovators, they were often dismissed as a novelty act or compared to Shonen Knife, a far less inventive bubblegum band that has nothing in common with Cibo Matto except that both consist of women born in Japan.

Any doubt about Cibo Matto's chops should disappear with the release of its thrilling new album, Stereotype A (WEA/Warner Bros.), so named because of the condescension Honda and Hatori have faced since appearing on the scene. Deliberately more accessible that its predecessor, Stereotype A combines heavy strains of soul, funk and bossa nova with the band's characteristic blend of hip-hop, electro pop and underground rock.

The record shows off Hatori's smooth, high voice--she trained as an opera singer and gets a chance to croon on tunes like "Sunday Part II" and "Moonchild," airy, soul-caressing ballads with slow funk grooves. Her signature rapping has improved as well; she delivers lyrics that are sometimes Dadaesque, sometimes straightforward and pointing, with perfect timing and terse, saucy phrasing.

Gone are the gastronomic metaphors that made the band (whose name means "Crazy Food" in Italian) famous. On Viva! La Woman, all the songs celebrated eating while also using food as a way to talk about emotions. On "Artichoke," for example, the vegetable serves as a symbol for a heart being slowly stripped of its defenses.

The device is alternately funny and moving, and given so many women's convulsive, neurotic relationship with food, the album's exuberant celebration of consumption is at least as cheekily political as its title. (In fact, Cibo Matto may be the most genuinely--though playfully--feminist act at this year's Lilith Fair.) The delicious refrain on the hip-hop/hard-rock hybrid "Birthday Cake" could serve as an anthem for disillusioned dieters everywhere: "Extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG!"

But Cibo Matto's paeans to hunger were sometimes seen as jokes. "People thought we were a gimmick band," says Honda. "We were definitely very serious. We love food and all the philosophy that goes around food. It's amazing that we eat; we put this foreign object in our body [and] chew it, and it becomes a part of our body. We think about food in a more philosophical way. Somehow I think we were naive to think that many people could relate to this. It's not that we're not interested in food anymore or don't believe in it as much, but we definitely have a strong desire to communicate to a wider audience."

Viva! La Woman, Honda continues, "was like a painting that has a circle drawn by a brush, just a simple brush drawing, and people looked at it and thought, 'Can they really draw or is this some kind of chance or luck?' People don't know if they can think of us in a serious way or not. I notice that people will look around and see if their friends think it's cool to like us or not. We wanted to make sure people knew we were serious, that we have a musical background."

THE AMERICAN underground has an obsession with Japan, which often seems to be seen as a technocracy where innocence and order overlie a kind of exotic perversity, an image largely derived from pornographic anime and a residual Madame Butterfly syndrome.

Thus the cultural forces that have propelled Japanese bands into the spotlight in the West have also marginalized Cibo Matto, despite the fact that Honda and Hatori have been shaped as much by their experiences in the East Village art scene as by their childhoods in Tokyo.

"Asia has some kind of trendiness. I like to see the positive side of it, because there hasn't been much place for us before, and I think we will [have a place] more and more," Honda says. "At the same time, Western countries have these romantic fantasies about Japan. I don't know how much this relates to Cibo Matto, but that [American bestseller] Memoirs of a Geisha is very annoying to me. It's like a book called A Texas Whore becoming a massive bestseller in Japan."

In facing Western stereotypes, Honda has been encouraged and inspired by another misunderstood, ahead-of-her-time Japanese artist and musician, a woman who also happens to be the mother of Honda's boyfriend, Sean Lennon.

"Yoko Ono made things easier for Japanese artists by her whole presence," Honda explains. "She's the most famous woman from Japan. Many people don't know who the prime minister of Japan is, but everyone knows Yoko Ono, how important she was for the peace movement, how important she was for John Lennon's life and how inspirational it is just to have her in New York. I once heard a reggae song that said, 'James Brown made me proud to be black, Marvin Gaye made me proud to be black, Martin Luther King made me proud to be black.' I used to say that Yoko Ono made me proud to be black."

Although Cibo Matto's delirious pastiche is pure mixed-up Manhattan, Honda says the band's aesthetic was incubated in Japan: "We were listening to heavy metal, hip-hop, soul music and Top 40. In America it's a little harder to mix them all, but being so far away from America, it was very easy for us to have all of them. I never thought about categories of music until people started to ask us where we fit in. It's really easy for me to jump from reggae to bossa nova to heavy metal to jazz, because that's how I grew up, and I like the fact that we take advantage of it, because it's really good to break barriers."

And it's even better if you can do it with Cibo Matto's sparkling panache. They smashed both genre and cultural divisions on Viva! La Woman. On Stereotype A, they celebrate their freedom.

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From the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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