Viva! Cibo Matto: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Their Breakthrough Debut LP

Rewind
05/14/2021
Janice Headley
photo by Julio Cann/Charlotte Kemp Muhl

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look. In honor of Pushing Boundaries, and in celebration of the album's 25th anniversary, KEXP's Janice Headley revisits Cibo Matto's genre-defying 1996 debut full-length Viva! La Woman


It seemed like things were getting better for women in ‘90s alt-rock. No, really, hear me out. 

The punk movement of the ‘80s paved the way, with icons like Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie, Patti Smith wielding the sledgehammers. You could find more female faces on the stage, not just in the audience… sure, they were often playing bass, but, hey, I said things were getting better, not stupendous. The Riot Grrrl movement emerged early in the decade, calling for a revolution, y'know, girl style. There was even Lilith Fair, which, look, I know it became a bit of a punchline, but it was a radical concept at the time and a defiant response to concert promoters who would only book one female-led act per bill, or radio stations who wouldn’t play two songs by women back-to-back. 

But, the one thing that was missing from it all was racial representation. Specifically for me, Asian women. 

I know I talk about this a lot, but growing up half-Japanese, I was on a constant, desperate, aching search for representation in the media… Hell, or even on the streets in day-to-day life, but living in Texas, I knew I had a better chance via TV, film, or magazines. I was a kindergarten Beatlemaniac. While most of my classmates were discovering Madonna and Michael Jackson, I was listening to John Lennon's solo album Double Fantasy, which featured a white man kissing a Japanese woman on the cover, an image both radical and familiar (although at that age, not like I ever wanted to see my parents kiss, 'cause eww). 

By the '90s, as I grew up and began to explore my place in the world as a young mixed-race woman, the majority of music I listened to was female-fronted. (Some cliche of a record store clerk at the mall chain store I frequented made a crack about me to his co-workers: “If it's a girl with a guitar, that chick will buy it” — suck my Juliana Hatfield CD, jerkwad!) But, at first, it was music by white women I was spending my afterschool-job salary on. 

But then! 

In the mid-’90s a wave of Japanese artists arrived to the States, from the garage-rock giddiness of Shonen Knife; the noise rock of Boredoms (who technically formed in the ‘80s, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until touring with Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and playing the main stage during the 1994 Lollapalooza tour); all-girl experimental space rock group Buffalo Daughter, and, surprisingly, a few more. (I still remember playing the mod, cocktail-kitsch of Pizzicato Five on the CD player in my Mom’s car, hoping for some cross-cultural connection, and she listened to the lyrics for about a minute before scoffing, “this is stupid.” #FAIL)

For me, at the forefront, was Cibo Matto, a New York City-based duo composed of Japanese artists Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori. Their 1996 debut full-length was boldly titled: Viva! La Woman. It was later listed in Spin's “100 Best Albums of the ‘90s” list, and Time Magazine selected it in their list of the “Best Hip Hop Albums of All Time.” Viva! la woman, indeed! As the album turned 25 years old this year, I wanted to look back on the reasons why I find it, and its creators, so awesome.


Their Style of Music Was Distinctly Their Own

Not only did the women behind Cibo Matto defy the “stand-in-the-back-and-play-bass” role or the “diary-pages-filtered-through-acoustic-guitar” act, they resisted genres, rapping (of all things!) against all styles of sound, quilted together from samplers and synthesizers, and inspired by New York’s experimental jazz scene. 

Miho Hatori widened her musical horizons as a clerk at the used record shop Flash Disc Ranch in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, discovering everything from bossa nova to heavy metal. “The owner, Mr. Tsubaki, who looks like Frank Zappa, he has really great taste and he had mixtapes,” she reflected in this 2017 interview with Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She took this newfound knowledge to the clubs, DJ’ing around Tokyo, and was briefly a member of hip-hop group Kimidori, leaving the group in 1992 to move to America the following year. She even studied opera at one point, which you can hear in her impressive range and the fluidity as she swoops around from note to note. 

Yuka Honda moved to NYC in the mid-80s as a journalist for a Japanese food magazine (foreshadowing!). She quickly immersed herself in the local music scene, playing in hip hop group Rhythm Method, the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and as a supporting musician in the avant garde jazz community. With Cibo Matto, she brought this experience and eccentricness to her sampler, noting in a 1999 press release, "People are mistaken if they think sampling is just patching together some cool old music. I am not interested in re-playing someone else's music." 

Viva! La Woman combined the talents and inspirations of Honda and Hatori into a wildly eclectic blend of hip-hop breakbeats, Brazilian rhythms, Beat Generation poetry, and diverse samples, off the television, from old albums, or noises around the city. From the eerie meditative trip-hop of their first single "Sugar Water" (a hit on college radio charts, propelled by an innovative split-screen music video directed by Michel Gondry) to the funky groove of "Know Your Chicken" (Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic is a guest musician on the album), you never knew what Cibo Matto was gonna serve up next. (Foreshadowing!)


They Sung About Food For a Good Reason

Often, when someone immigrates to the United States and is just learning how to speak English, they'll clam up in public, worried they'll use the wrong word, scared to look foolish in front of others. But, not Cibo Matto.

Viva! La Woman is a sonic buffet of songs revolving around food, with tracks titled "Apple," "Beef Jerky," "Artichoke," and "White Pepper Ice Cream," to name a few. In fact, the band name itself translates from Italian to "food madness," a play on the title of a '70s B-movie erotic comedy titled Sesso Matto (or "Sex Madness"). The entree obsession may have eventually backfired, as the press fixated on the so-called "gimmick" as opposed to the music, but it actually served a purpose at the time. 

“When I wrote the songs on [the album], my vocabulary was limited, and [using] food is the easiest way to tell a story,” Hatori told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “We learned a little bit of English grammar in school in Japan, but it’s English that nobody uses. Like, ‘This is a pen.’ Stuff like that.”

Honda continued, "A lot of people don’t realize in what ways food is used in our music. The songs aren’t all about food. There’s no song about, like, how Brussels sprouts are structured, you know? But I think that food is a great metaphor, because everybody eats. Everybody knows the feeling when you’re hungry for five hours and you have some kind of junk food and it tastes so amazing. It’s a common experience.”

No matter what race, gender, or generation you are, you get hungry and food unifies us. Genius. As Hatori told the Iowa State Daily in 1999, "We want to share music with your mom, you know?" (So, that's what I should've played in my Mom's car that day!)



Performing on Comedy Central's Viva Variety, 1997

 

They Defied the Stereotype of Japanese Women

As Hatori told the Iowa State Daily, "Some people think we are just cute, and we are sick of it. Somehow there is that kind of images, stereotypes, which is Japanese girls… cute, nice, smiles, quiet."

When Cibo Matto emerged on the scene with Viva! La Woman, they skewed the mainstream lens of Japanese women, betraying the stereotype of the “bashful geisha” or “kawaii-core.” They were loud. Very loud. (I totally wanted to sing “Birthday Cake” at my birthday karaoke party a few years ago, and was looking forward to screeching “Shut Up and Eat!” at all my friends, but ended up getting sick that night, sigh.)

Hatori's bellowing cry calls to mind the primal scream of iconic Japanese artist Yoko Ono, an inspiration, and later, collaborator. (The pair remixed Ono's 1995 single "Talking to the Universe"; Honda co-produced Ono's 2009 album Between My Head and the Sky, and toured with the reformed Plastic Ono Band around that time. Ono's son, Sean Lennon, was a member of Cibo Matto from 1997–2002.) Ono was, quite possibly, the most derided Japanese woman of our time, disparagingly declared a "dragon lady" in the press. She cemented her role model status by cooly replying, "“I’m kind of honored to be a dragon lady. The dragon is a very powerful, mythical animal... well, probably they think I’m powerful, thank you very much.”

"Yoko was already a huge icon when I was born in Japan," Hatori shared with Consequence of Sound. "I discovered her more deeply after I read her book Just Me! when I was in high school. I was searching for a direction to my future. Her book was inspiring to me."

They also had to contend with the press lumping them into a group with Shonen Knife, Pizzicato Five, and other aforementioned Japanese bands featuring women. "That's as insane as comparing Hootie and the Blowfish to Lou Reed or James Brown; to put them in the same category because they are male and they are American," Honda sighed on KUCI FM in 1996. 

And while proud of their heritage, they also refused to define themselves by their race, as evidenced in this discussion for The Harvard Crimson:  

Miho: It’s more about Yuka and me and our chemistry. I’ve never thought of it as because Yuka is Japanese. I think of Yuka as “Yuka.”

Yuka: I think of Miho as a blonde woman.


And the Stereotype of Just Being a Woman, In the First Place

And then there's the prejudice that comes with being a woman in general. 

'"People have a lot of stereotypes," Honda said to The Hatchet in 1999. "They are not used to women handling machines. If we have problems with the equipment, and we call a friend, they always want to talk to Sean [Lennon] first. Even if a producer walks in, they will always look to the man. People aren’t use to women pushing buttons and pulling strings."

She continued in a 1999 interview with Nylon Magazine: "It's hard for people to take us seriously. We are girls, so they ask us who writes out music. We have all these food titles, so people kind of put us in this novelty band category. With the last album [VLW], people would ask us, 'Do you think you're stereotyped?' But afterward, they would ask, 'What's your favorite food.' You know, things they would never ask me if I were the drummer of The Roots."

It's no surprise the second Cibo Matto album was titled Stereo ★ Type A, as they struggled against the public's perception of their persona. (Honda even produced the album herself, eager to prove that they answer to no man.) But, alas, the sophomore release was also subjected to sexism with reviewers crediting their growth as a band to the addition of musicians Sean Lennon and Timo Ellis. Andy Gill (no, not that one) wrote in The Independent that "they actually sound like a proper band now" thanks to two men joining the band. 


But, ultimately, Cibo Matto prevailed, going on to influence a new generation of musicians — some Japanese, some not — and gaining new fans who're just discovering them.  “Every now and then somebody comes up to me and says, ‘I know I’m really late, but I just discovered you,’” Honda told the Los Angeles Times. “That makes me really happy.”

Though they broke up in 2001, they came back together to play a benefit concert after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tōhoku region of Japan. This resulted in their third LP, Hotel Valentine, which was released on said-holiday in 2014. While they broke up again at the end of 2017, it'll never truly be the end of Cibo Matto.

"That’s an interesting thing I discovered. Cibo Matto is still there, because actually that’s not something I’m controlling," Hatori said in this 2018 interview with the Creative Independent. "It’s people’s history and in people’s minds and visions. So, for me, there’s no control over it. It’s like, we’re not doing it anymore, but people will still probably see the Michel Gondry video. You know what I mean? That time of my history is captured there.

...We always have memories. Some disappear and some stay. But we want to keep them. I feel like artists who have passed away are still here, too. There’s always something there, so capturing that moment is such a powerful thing.

Music is about that.

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