How did a Colombian, French-influenced, gypsy jazz band by the name of Monsieur Periné become one of the most exciting emerging artists in Latin music? At one point, even people in Colombia didn't think they were from there.
Lead singer Catalina García was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, on the country's Pacific coast. In the 1970s, Cali was known as the cinematic center of the country and even nicknamed “Caliwood,” until the collapse of the Colombian film industry during the drug wars of the '80s. Now it's better known for its salsa music scene.
“People who like to dance always come to Cali,” García says.
Monsieur Periné's musicians Nicolás Junca and Santiago Prieto were obsessed with the gypsy guitar sound of Django Reinhardt, which they learned to imitate from watching movies. These types of guitars were not sold in Colombia, so they had to order them online.
Meanwhile, Garcia's grandparents enrolled her in a school where she could learn another language. Knowing she would learn English anyway, they sent her to a French school in Cali.
All of these elements come together in Monsieur Periné. Colorful costumes and theatrical performances evoke the spirit of Colombia’s old cinema. Gypsy jazz, swing, salsa and cumbia set the rhythms for a dance party. It’s as if Django Reinhardt was Colombian.
Their 2012 debut album caught the attention of a niche indie-Latin music community around the world. But back home in Colombia, they struggled to gain recognition, as mainstream radio there mostly plays reggaeton, EDM, vallenato and some salsa.
That all changed thanks to Twitter. One day they noticed that Eduardo Cabra, also known as Visitante from the Grammy-winning Puerto Rican group Calle 13, had started following them.
“I assumed this guy was following everybody and he wasn't interested in our music,” Garcia recalls.
But a couple weeks later, they received an email from someone asking Monsieur Periné to go to Calle 13’s show when they performed in Colombia. Next thing they knew, they were opening for Calle 13 on their “MultiViral” tour, playing in Mexico, Spain and elsewhere around the world.
Monsieur Periné asked Cabra if he would produce their next album, Caja de Música. He was immediately on board. That album would help the band win the 2015 Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
“We’re a part of a new Latin American movement,” Garcia says.
This movement is all about breaking down barriers. Other artists like Natalia LaFourcade, Bomba Estereo and Carla Morrison have outgrown and are dissolving the old “Latin alternative” bubble the mainstream industry once placed them in.
It’s about representing the music, art and culture of Latin America as a whole. And along with that, bringing awareness to social and political issues that affect each and every country.
Garcia’s family has owned the Quindio coffee plantation for four generations now. It’s part of Colombia's "coffee-growing axis," which is the center of production and export of the highest-quality coffee in the country. Through the experience of her mother and grandparents teaching her to harvest coffee, she learned to appreciate the environment. “Growing plants, you're growing life,” she says.
Back home in Colombia, there’s a big environmental crisis. The coal-mining industry is killing the land and people. You can learn all about it in a documentary released last year called El Rio Que Se Robaron (which translates to The River They Stole).
The operators of Cerrejón Coal Mine, the biggest open coal mine in the world, have placed a dam on the Ranchería River in the northern region of Colombia. The mine uses more than 9 million gallons of water a day for its operations.
The river is now nothing but sand and stones and the water supply has been cut off to all the local farms and villages. More than 14,000 people have died of starvation, including many children. The indigenous tribe that lives in the north, the Wayuu, are basically being exterminated.
"They’re destroying our jungles, oceans and life. Our government is not doing anything about it, and nobody else knows,” Garcia explains.
Monsieur Periné will be releasing a new video and some remixes to tracks off their new album soon. They’re also working on producing a special performance in Colombia with a symphony orchestra.
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Then maybe, Monsieur Periné would like to start their own coffee one day.
Monsieur Periné plays the Echo on Monday, May 2.