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Brazilian Rendezvous

Smokey Hormel is from L.A. and Miho Hatori from Japan, but they have found common ground in the bossa nova.

January 31, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask guitarist Smokey Hormel how he came to love Brazilian music, and he sets a scene that could come from a freewheeling contemporary novel.

"I grew up in the '60s in L.A., and my mom was a French ballerina and my dad was this rich guy who loved music and having parties," says the musician, a grandson of the man who invented Spam and the guitarist during the past decade for Beck, Tom Waits and the Blasters.

"One of their best friends was the Brazilian consul, and whenever Brazilian artists came to town he would call and say, 'Sergio Mendes is in town.' My dad would say, 'Cool, let's have a party.' So when I was a kid, people like Gilberto Gil and Antonio Carlos Jobim were all at these parties at our house, up all night drinking."

For singer Miho Hatori, who grew up in Tokyo and was part of the New York art-pop band Cibo Matto, the connection to Brazilian music seems almost mundane.

"When I was a teenager in Tokyo in the '80s, I was into alternative rock," she says. "But one friend of mine played [a record by] Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, and I felt, 'Man!' Even though I was into rock and noise, I loved this feeling of the music. Generally, Japanese listeners just love Brazilian music. Every time I go back there, I find more great Brazilian records I cannot get here."

So, perhaps it was fated that these two artists from seemingly different worlds would team up to play music of and inspired by their '60s bossa nova heroes, in earnest exploration of mutual, if unlikely, roots.

Billed as Smokey & Miho, they've assembled a small band that will make its Los Angeles debut tonight at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, performing songs by such Brazilian figures as Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes, as well as original takes on the slinky, sensual sounds.

They've recorded demos of three new songs--one of which was used in the Golden Globe-nominated Mexican film "Y Tu Mama Tambien" last year--and are writing more, with plans to make a full album.

The recordings show that they've already put their distinctive stamps on the music, expanding beyond the boundaries of bossa nova while remaining true to the spirit. One of the songs is from Angola (like Brazil, a former Portuguese colony), and in addition to Portuguese, Hatori sings in Japanese, English and the Angolan language Kinbundu.

"I have English with a Japanese accent, and I have that too with Portuguese," says the 30-year-old Hatori, who is also a featured singer in the "virtual" band the Gorillaz. "I'm willing to learn. And Japanese sounds are close to Portuguese. Actually, the first white person to come to Japan in the 15th century was Portuguese."

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The genesis of the project came in 1998 when Cibo Matto was the opening act on a Beck tour, and the two musicians hit it off. Hormel, who had concentrated on blues and rock as a performer, had reconnected with Brazilian music via Beck, an aficionado of the quasi-psychedelic tropicalia style of the '60s and '70s. Having renewed his enthusiasm for bossa nova, Hormel gave Hatori a copy of a Baden Powell album, and the music became central to their friendship.

"Every time I went to New York, we'd have a jam session," says Hormel, 41. "A year later I was living [in New York] and had just seen Baden Powell play what would be his last show ever, actually. And Miho and I were talking about that tape I'd given her, and we decided to try to perform the songs from that album just as a challenge."

In December 2000, they performed the entire album, "Os Afros Sambas," at the club Tonic in New York. The effort proved not just a diversion, but also a haven for the two.

"Cibo Matto was struggling at the time to get played on the radio," Hormel says. "I'd been watching Beck's frustration with [lower-than-expected sales for] the 'Midnite Vultures' album. It felt good to just play music without thinking of the business."

That aspect, they say, became even more important in recent months. The post-Sept. 11 slowdown meant less demand for Hormel on tours and recording sessions, and Hatori and her Cibo Matto partner, Yuko Honda, decided to put the group on indefinite hiatus.

"Since [Sept. 11], Miho and I have been focused on this project," Hormel says. "I'm not making a lot of money on it, though I definitely think it has the potential to make some money. But that's not why we're doing it. For me, it's nice to play quiet and hear beautiful melodies. The beat is so natural, like a heartbeat.

"A lot of the imagery is very romantic, but also about people trying to find a place in the modern world and be connected to their spirit.

"You turn on the radio these days and the beats you're hearing are so unnatural. They sure don't make me feel sexy."

Smokey & Miho, with Brazaville and Gwendolyn, tonight at 8 at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, $10. (323) 463-0204.

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