Despite the sunny sound and carefree tropical rhythms, the Colombian group Monsieur Periné is serious about their musical explorations.
In 2016, the group received the “Best New Artist” Latin Grammy even though Caja de Musica was their second release and the band had been playing together for eight years. Despite the head-scratching Grammy logic, Monsieur Periné rode a wave to the top of the charts internationally with their breezy, acoustic swing. While often labeled as revivalists of the manouche jazz of Django Reinhardt, their repertoire is wider.
With Monsieur Periné’s new album, Encanto Tropical (Tropical Charm), the group’s sound continues to be sweetly upbeat while pulling elements from an array of genres – both traditional and imported. While they aren’t readily pigeon-holed as being “Colombian”, they have a reverence for the genres of both their native country and of the diverse sounds that globalization and the internet have brought to their home base – the modern-day, melting-pot of Bogotá.
Of the new album, band co-founder Santiago Prieto said they were conscious of the higher stakes fame had brought them, but felt relaxed since they again partnered with Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra of the Puerto Rican group Calle 13 as their producer. “It was like cooking with friends on a Friday night,” Prieto said, “having fun, putting together whatever we had. It was a little bit scary. We had this pressure of being a Grammy-winning band and having more eyes on top of us.”
The band also took more time to record this time out. The members initially recorded stripped-down demos of 30 songs in Miami, eventually going back to Colombia and narrowing that down to 11 for the album.
Prieto describes the album as an homage to the tropics. “We were trying to represent the richness and diversity of nature and music [in the tropics],” he said. And certainly, its balmy warmth makes that easy to believe. He added that there was a political undertow, pointing to the contemporary threats to the environment.
For the title cut, Prieto said, the members recreated a late 1940s big band cumbia sound. “We tried to put this sound into a song for today… It was an education.” The song plays a solo whistle off swirling brass accents, all loping along to a cumbia-cum-reggae rhythm. Lead vocalist Catalina García sings in her delicate, girlish voice: “Tropical charm, sweet mystery that catches me / Tropical charm, between memories of water and salt.”
For the first single, “Bailar Contigo”, Prieto says, they were going for a “beach vibe”. The song goes back and forth lyrically and musically with an ambivalent narrator fed up with her lover: “You know I’m dying / I can’t take it anymore”, while the chorus has her letting go: “Dancing with you, in the sand and the drums / You have the flame that lights my soul and makes us fly.” The song uses velvety bossa nova harmonies, Afro-Colombian drums, and the ukulele-like Brazilian cavaquinho. Similarly, the song’s video has the group’s lead singer, Catalina García, lying dreamily in a white dress semi-submerged in a pond, spliced with her dancing sensually in a forest with bright red lipstick and a black dress.
As they push into a slightly more electronic sound on this album, they added a vintage Farfisa organ for a nod to the 1970s psychedelic cumbia popularized in Peru on “La Tregua (The Truce)”. The song of a badly treated lover guest stars Vicentico, vocalist and co-founder of the iconic Argentine rock band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
Monsieur Periné’s origins were somewhat serendipitous. In 2007, Prieto says, he was on holiday in the Colombian town of Villa de Leyva. He grabbed his charango and went into the town’s plaza. Eventually, a former music academy classmate, Nicholas Júnca, came into the plaza with García, the daughter of a long-time coffee-growing family who was studying anthropology. Hanging out in the plaza, they began to play songs they knew, and the camaraderie felt so good that they promised to reconvene back in Bogotá. They began to play covers of boleros and bossa nova tunes, getting a gig one day for a relative’s party, which immediately led to another gig. Soon they were playing regularly, eventually trying their hands at some original tunes, including some in a retro French jazz style. After some success at a few local music festivals, they solidified an identity, which included costumes designed by one of the bandmates.
The group’s name was derived from périnée or perineum, the polite term for the flesh between the anus and genitals – sometimes called the “taint” or “gooch” in American slang. In their early days of the band, the word became a running joke among the bandmates and eventually García, who was not wild about it, added “Monsieur” to give it a soupcon of French-sounding, if somewhat ironic, elegance.
In 2012, the band released their first album , Hecho a mano (Handmade), which went gold in Colombia. While the group was gaining notice for their iconoclastic sound, they discovered via Twitter that Cabra of Calle 13 was following them. They were then invited to see the band perform in Colombia and soon joined them on an international tour.
Cabra liked them enough to come to Colombia to try his hand at collaborating on a song that they were stuck on. Cabra sat on the floor with his eyes closed, asked them to run through the unfinished song, and began swaying and tossing out ideas. In a couple of hours, he helped them figure out how to finalize the tune.
Soon he was on board for the rest of the album, attuned to their mission to create different emotional landscapes with each song on the travelogue of an album – from the beaches of Colombia to the storied old jazz clubs of Paris. Cabra used cinematic references, including talking about Sebastian the crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid on the laid-back island seascape of “Marinero Wawani”.
Caja de Musica opened new doors, exposed them to new audiences and helped feed their insatiable musical curiosity, sliding them into a growing movement of young Latin bands that did not fit into stereotypical categories.
Prieto says each album is like a mountain to a climber, “a challenge that manifests in doing something you don’t know how to do”. He adds that the band’s interest in new influences is “very connected with our lifestyle – we are a traveling band, so we are like a nomad people. We’re always learning from things that happen in our trips.”
Now the group is readying itself for a new major tour, which will include South American cities, as well as several in the U.S. Prieto, said he is looking forward to road-hardening the new songs night after night on the road. “This record poses a challenge for everybody.”