Music

Cibo Matto: Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto

Evan Sawdey

Two Japanese women write songs about food, sample Duke Ellington, and set it all to sci-fi trip-hop beats. In other words: complete musical genius.


Cibo Matto

Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2007-03-20
UK Release Date: 2007-03-20
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"How did you come up with this one, girls? It’s just so tough for any musician to follow, ‘cause your brand of magic is in every song you cooked. Hey, I’m ready for the dessert, sisters!"

--Yoko Ono (from the liner notes of Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto)

In the Big Book of Rock History, Cibo Matto -- in all likelihood -- will go down as a footnote. However, few footnotes are as diverse, exciting, weird or genuinely fun as the female Japanese pop duo who took on an Italian band name and then wrote an excessive amount of songs about food. Back in 1995, few songs this side of Björk were as off-beat or exciting as "Know Your Chicken" or "Birthday Cake", miniature trip-hop parties with countless horn samples and Miho Hatori’s fantastic broken-English faux-rapping peppering each track. Even today, their landmark 1996 debut ( Viva! La Woman) still sounds remarkably fresh, largely due to the fact that in the late-’90s alt-rock sweepstakes, few groups (rock or otherwise) knew how to have genuine fun in the recording studio -- something Cibo Matto had in spades.

However, the influential duo’s reign of weird was short-lived. After Viva!, they released one major EP (the 1997 remix-heavy Super Relax) and their 1999 sophomore full-length (swan song Stereo Type A) managed to gather some Billboard chart ink, but it was tossed off by some for not being as groundbreaking as the debut. Since, the group disbanded, Hatori got roped into the first incarnation of Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, while sample-master Yuka Honda got into producing, with both members dropping the occasional solo release here and there.

For such a frighteningly small discography, the idea of making a best-of compilation is an intimidating one: how does one pick the "greatest" songs off of a pair of LPs? The precedent has already been set (Hilary Duff managed the feat back in 2005), but here’s a canon that has few missteps -- leave off the wrong set of songs and diehard fans will be up in arms! Yet Rhino (the undisputed master of music recycling) manages the feat on Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto by including eight of Viva! La Woman’s ten songs, dangerously close to rendering the landmark disc inessential (thankfully it’s spared such a fate by Rhino leaving the excellent ten-minute epic "Theme" right where it is). Stereo -- with its intimidating 16 tracks -- only gets seven tunes featured here (eight if you count the previously-unreleased Dan the Automator remix of "King of Silence"). By all accounts, Pom Pom should be a sprawling mess, as if one shuffled two different decks of cards together and pulled out a hand at random. Fortunately for Rhino (and the listener), any hand would have been a Royal Flush.

In a pop landscape where Timbaland’s once-obscure sci-fi beats are now considered the norm, it’s still amazing how remarkably fresh and exciting an 11-year-old track like "Sugar Water" can sound. Featuring half-there acoustic guitars, opera vocalists in the background, and obtuse lines like, "the buildings are changing into coconut trees / little by little"; it’s not as much about making a point as it is just being overwhelmed by the delicious strangeness of it all. The album is smartly spread out (not front-loaded with singles), allowing great but lesser-known songs like "Spoon" and "Flowers" to shine through, while still retaining time-tested fan favorites like "Sci-Fi Wasabi", "Working for Vacation", and "Moonchild" (which, if you haven’t heard yet, will no doubt become favorites very soon).

However, the true Cibo Matto completists will still find much to gripe about, and justifiably so. The disc does try to entice hardcore fans with either unreleased tracks (the totally inessential downbeat number "Swords and a Paintbrush") or hard-to-find rarities (like the space-rock ditty "Backseat", initially found in the import edition of Stereo Type A), but ultimately those songs take up space that could be used for a litany of other great tunes. What happened to Stereo’s "Blue Train"? How about any song off of the Super Relax EP (which gets omitted in its entirety)? Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy is that we don’t get to see one of Cibo Matto’s greatest talents: the cover song. Throughout their career, they’ve done everything from covering Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Aguas de Marco" to singing Soundgarden’s "Black Hole Sun" in French. They’ve done drastic reinterpretations of the Rolling Stones’ "Sing This All Together" and even Nirvana’s "About a Girl", and each one showcases not only the girls’ affinity for pop music, but also their ability to completely re-contextualize a song while still retaining its heart. This is a side of the group that Pom Pom regretfully ignores.

However, these complaints are -- in the long run -- really just splitting hairs. The unknowing record buyer who picks this is about to be sent on a wild careening ride through the modern pop song, and few things will ever be as memorable. Plus, any group that can rhyme "Obi-Wan Kenobi told me in the lobby" together in a song is instantly granted "essential" status. As a monument and tribute to one of the most unique musical duos in the past decade, it may not be the most complete document ever assembled, but it doesn’t have to be: Cibo Matto doesn’t need to win your heart over in 19 songs -- they can do it in just one.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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