When Smokey & Miho performed the quiet, haunting samba “Canto de Pedra Preta” on Saturday night, I felt the urge to sock someone. It’s not a typical reaction, and probably not the one Beck collaborator Smokey Hormel and former Cibo Matto member Miho Hatori were looking for, but I’m betting I wasn’t the only one in the front half of Schuba’s music space who felt it. It wasn’t the music causing the veins on my forehead to pop out, as Hormel’s announcement at the start of the show that “We’re here to soothe your souls” turned out to be true. It was the crowd filling the back half of the small room that was driving me to madness. Guzzling beer, gabbing at top volume, and desperately trying to score might be alright at a loud rock concert, but at a show like Smokey & Miho’s, where silence and sweetness are integral parts of the music, the disregard for the people on-stage was not only noticeable, but pretty fucking rude.
But lest I come off as a crank, let me state here and now that I loved the show, in spite of the idiots in the audience and a few sound problems (due to the lack of a sound check). The real beauty of Smokey & Miho’s performance was its organic quality. Hatori, who handled vocals and some percussion, and Hormel, who played guitar and occasionally sang, were joined by Jon Birdsong on horns, Mauro Refosco on drums and percussion, and Ganda on vocals and percussion. Despite there being five people on-stage, neither the stage nor the sound ever seemed cluttered. The bodies on-stage were unobtrusive because they were so natural—everyone was dressed casually and held themselves with the demeanor of people taking joy in making pretty sounds, not putting on a show. And the beautiful sounds those bodies made were as natural and gentle as breathing—pretty strange, since we’re talking about an American guy and a Japanese woman playing Brazilian music.
Dressed in a simple floral shift and with her long bangs falling in her eyes, Hatori definitely looked the part of a ‘60s samba singer. She mostly performed in the native language of samba, too, most notably on renditions of the five Baden Powell covers that comprise the new Smokey & Miho EP, Tempo de Amor. Even if her Portuguese pronunciation was lacking (hell if I know), Hatori’s vocals left no room for complaint. Those familiar only with her rapping in broken English with Cibo Matto would be surprised at the sweetness and clarity of her lovely singing voice.
Someone in the crowd noted how weird it was to hear a little Japanese girl singing in Spanish—never mind that the “little girl” is about 30 and the language is actually Portuguese—which brings up an interesting issue: Is this kitsch or cultural appropriation or what? When I interviewed Hatori recently, she said that one of Smokey & Miho’s goals is to arouse interest in Brazilian music. While that’s a noble aim, there’s little doubt that most people go see Smokey & Miho because of the Beck and Cibo Matto associations (a wise-ass at their second Chicago show even called out a request for the latter’s hit “Know Your Chicken”). Are audiences really learning to appreciate samba if they’re getting it from a secondhand source? Not being a musical purist myself, I’d say, why not? After all, if people in the first half of the 20th century had believed that musical ideas from ethnicities and geographical regions other than their own were off-limits, there wouldn’t be any rock ‘n’ roll. And then where would people go to guzzle beer, gab at top volume, and desperately try to score instead of listening to music?