Discussing Brazilian Music with Smokey Hormel

By 11 August, 2011

The name Smokey Hormel may not sound very familiar, but it’s almost certain that you will own a record somewhere that features his guitarwork. His name can be found in the credits for albums by Beck, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Joe Strummer and so many more. He’s even played on albums by Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock! More importantly for us though he has often shown a real love for Brazilian music, in projects such as Forró in the Dark and Smokey and Miho, as well as Beck’s tropicália-inspired Mutations album, which all meant we had plenty to talk about. Here’s our conversation:

First off, when did you become interested in Brazilian music, and what were the artists that first made an impression?
As a kid, growing up in LA in the sixties, I heard a lot of bossa nova at home. My parents had a friend who worked for the Brazilian consulate. He would bring the latest recordings and some of the visiting musicians to parties at our house. So we listened to a lot of Sergio Mendes, Jobim, Dori Cayimi, Luiz Bonfa, and even Jorge Ben. But mostly it was Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66’s first 3 A&M albums, and the soundtrack to Black Orpheus.

Did you find many people, especially in LA, who had this connection to Brazilian music?
Well, I remember a lot of people got turned on to Bossa Nova in the late 60s. It was what the sophisticated urban crowd listened to when they wanted to chill out. It was pretty normal to find Getz/Gilberto in someone’s record collection, right next to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. I also remember as a kid, seeing Jobim on TV with Frank Sinatra.

When was the first time that you began to use Brazilian phrasings or rhythms in your playing?
When I was a teenager I would play along to the radio and records a lot. I was trying to branch out from rock and play some jazz. There was a lot more Brazilian influence in popular music in the 70s and many bands (from Chick Corea to Stevie Wonder) all had strong Brazilian elements creep into their sound.

How did the work with Beck on Mutations come about?
I was in the Odelay touring band in 1996. When we got to Japan, Beck bought some Jorge Ben albums. It was then that I began to rediscover a lot of this music. That sound was very appealing to us at the time and we (Beck and the band) all bought tons of reissues and box sets that were just coming out in Japan. We started jamming a little more at soundchecks, trying to play those grooves. And when we went back into the studio to do Mutations, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, since we all had been listening to that stuff and playing it together on the road.

Beck performing “Tropicalia” live in Portugal (with Smokey on guitar):

To what extent do you think that album was a homage to tropicália, and Os Mutantes in particular?
I think that it was definitely a major influence on that album, but there were other influences at play as well, like Gainsbourg, Nick Drake, Morricone …etc

How did you get involved with Forró In The Dark?
I was an original member. Rob Curto, Mauro Refosco and I started the band in 2002. I even named it after a Gonzaga song. Mauro had been playing with Smokey and Miho. It was his birthday and there was a party at Nublu. Mauro, Rob and I played. Everybody loved it, so we started doing it every week. Pretty soon it was packed with a line out the door.

> I produced the first album with Mauro (which has a song featuring Seu Jorge). But, after it was mastered, Mauro alienated me, by just giving the record over to the owners of Nublu to put on their label. At that point, it went from being our band to being Mauro’s band. I did end up playing all the bass and some guitar on the second album (Bonfires Of San Joao). My bass playing was different than most of the Brazilian players who play forró. I was approaching it more like the basslines you would hear on early Congolese Rhumba recordings. Instead of electric bass, I used an electric baritone guitar, which blended better because it left more room on the low end for the Zabumba and the Ribolo. But the politics in the band were terrible. We were supposed to be a collective, but one guy was making all the decisions. And being the only non-Brazilian, who also doesn’t speak Portuguese, I didn’t stand a chance. It was a bittersweet experience, because even though we eventually fell out, I still got to play that music live every week for 3 years. I learned so many great songs and got to work with so many wonderful musicians.

Aside from the obvious rhythms and songbook of Brazil, are there any other elements of the music that are or were particularly appealing to you?
I love the organic melodies and the sensuous nature of Brazilian music from the 50s and 60s. I also love any music that makes me dance. Brazil has so many different types of music. There is so much good stuff. My favorite these days is Luiz Gonzaga. In fact the one regret, in my career, is that I never got Johnny Cash to do any forró songs. We did “Hurt” (by Nine Inch Nails) and “Redemption Song” (by Bob Marley), but I think it would have been great to hear him sing a Gonzaga tune.

I really like the EP you did of Afro-Sambas [as Smokey and Miho]. What was the appeal of doing an EP of these particular songs?
Thanks. Basically, Miho and I just wanted to see if we could learn these Baden Powell songs, We did a couple of shows and decided to make an EP. It was all a big experiment for us. We had so much fun and we learned a lot.

Smokey and Miho – “Canto de Iemanja”

The thing that really struck me about that EP was how natural it sounded. It was almost as if you had been schooled in candomblé and the world of Afro-Samba. Does it feel natural playing Brazilian music?
Thank you so much. I guess I am lucky that I heard so much of it as a young boy. I suppose that helps. But like any other music that I get into, I immerse myself into it. I listen to it 24/7. And if you listen to enough of it, after a while it starts to sink in to your body, into your skin and organs. If you can just let go of your mind, it will take you to nirvana.

Have you been to Brazil?
I toured there last November with Norah Jones. It was great. I had such a good time. I went to see a little choro band in one of the favelas in Rio. It was cool because I knew a lot of the songs already from playing in a forró band for 4 years. There was a little moment during our first Brazilian show, where at the end of one of Norah’s more bluegrass sounding songs, I would take a little solo on the outro. That night, I happened to quote “Asa Branca” (by Luiz Gonzaga) during the solo. Well, the audience instantly erupted into cheers. So, I spent the rest of the tour trying to fit Gonzaga melodies into all my solos. I think the people were surprised that a North American person even knew Gonzaga’s music.

Are you working on anything else at the moment with a Brazilian vibe?
Well I did a bossa nova arrangement of The Cure’s “Lovesong” for Adele, which is featured on her chart topping new album (21).

Adele – “Lovesong”

And my band, Smokey’s Secret Family, is working on a second CD of African and Brazilian influenced music. This new CD will have some songs from Martinique as well as African songs and some reinterpretations of Gonzaga. I am so lucky to have two amazing percussionists from Forro In The Dark, (Gilmar Gomes & Davi Viera) playing in this band with me. We have a few shows scheduled in New York in August. It is so much fun. The instrumentation is electric guitar, tuba, trombone, clarinet and two percussionists.

Smokey’s Secret Family – “Cheri Akimi Ngai”

And last question. If you had to recommend a Brazilian album to someone what would it be?
There are so many different styles of music in Brazil and I don’t know of one album that covers the whole spectrum. So I will just have to pick one of my favorite albums, which is very unique and only represents a fleeting moment in time…

Os Afros Sambas by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes.

It is hauntingly beautiful. I can’t express in words how much this record affected me. But it is an unfair question because there are so many other great albums that I would want to recommend as well.

Nara Leao … Nana
Jobim and Elis Regina. … Elis and Tom
Jorge Ben … any of the first four albums
Luiz Gonzaga, Joao Gilberto, Cartola, Pixinguina, Dori Cayimi, Bola Sete,… etc.
And I would also suggest they go see the documentary called Saravah.

But if I had to pick one it would be Os Afros Sambas.

Find out more about Smokey and his projects at www.smokeyhormel.com.

Illustration at top of page is by Liz Starin. To see more of her illustrations please go to cargocollective.com/lizstarin.

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