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Latinx Files: The timelessness of Monsieur Periné

Catalina García and Santiago Prieto of Monsieur Periné
(Raul Higuera)
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Periodically, the Latinx Files will feature a guest writer. This week, we’ve asked contributing music writer Ernesto Lechner to fill in.

Catalina García looks a bit worried. She opens the heavy door of the Belasco theater in downtown Los Angeles to let me in as her band, Monsieur Periné, slowly begins to set up for a sound check. Hours before the show, the club feels sleepy and cavernous. We take a seat in her dressing room backstage, and the singer voices out her anxiety in Spanish marked by a melodious Colombian accent.

“Selling tickets on this tour has been a real challenge,” she said with a sigh, referencing the U.S. leg of the Bolero Apocalíptico tour, which kicked off in Sacramento on May 25 and will conclude in Chicago on June 17.

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“I don’t remember it ever being so difficult for us, you know?”

At 38, García looks like a ballerina from a classic picture book, the absence of makeup enhancing the delicate features of her face. In conversation, she is witty and incisive, taking the time to reflect as she analyzes the bittersweet ambivalence of Monsieur Periné’s present.

“We were just talking about this,” she said, before I get the chance to ask my first question. “How many Colombian bands have the luxury of touring the U.S.? And I’m not talking about huge pop stars like Juanes, Shakira or Karo. G. I’m talking about bands. Right now, it’s Aterciopelados, Bomba Estéreo and us. Anyone else? I think of the staggering amount of talented musicians living in my country, and it makes me sad.”

Whatever sorrow García felt dissipated the moment the band stepped onstage. True to her words, the Belasco was not quite filled to capacity, but the musicians were nonetheless received like the rock stars they are by the boisterous crowd. Wearing an extravagant costume, the singer oozed charisma as she danced in unison with the two-piece brass section.

For over a decade, Monsieur Periné has built a sterling reputation as one of the most electrifying live Latin bands in the business, and the Belasco performance showcased their persona in full bloom: a Colombian octet that plays Gypsy jazz — a subgenre inspired by the work of French Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt — and anchors its punch on the rollicking riffs of sax and trombone. The band can casually switch from a rockish French chanson to a sassy, post-modern, yet reverentially bohemian reading of the timeless bolero “Sabor a Mí.”

“We are caught in a perpetual state of search,” García said when I asked about how the group’s quirky fusion of styles came to be.

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“There’s always something waiting to be done, to be learned. We want to address the sounds that move us, and that’s what keeps us pushing forward. We drink from the waters of folk, we feel it deeply, but we’re not folcloristas. Bringing the wide influence of Latin folk to your own universe implies a creative challenge, both in terms of songwriting and production. We’re still figuring out how to mix those disparate elements.”

It all began in Bogotá, where García moved from her hometown of Cali to study anthropology in 2007. Of the band’s founding members, only she and guitarist Santiago Prieto remain today (Prieto is absent from the current jaunt as he was unable to secure a U.S. visa.) The duo were intrigued by the electro swing movement that blossomed in Europe and the frothy confections of neo-chanson bands like Paris Combo. Mixing jazz with Colombian roots was not a novel idea — bandleader and composer Lucho Bermúdez had already revolutionized the cumbia and porro dance genres of his land in the 1940s by transposing them to cosmopolitan big band arrangements. Like most Colombians, García and Prieto grew up with the warmth of Bermúdez’s anthems in the background.

“When I met Santiago, he was obsessed with learning how to play Gypsy jazz, and the internet became our biggest ally,” she said. “I had gone to French school, and felt at home with the spirit of the language, its movies and theater. We didn’t really copy it — we just appropriated the style and Colombianized it, added some carnival to it.”

García describes experiencing bouts of insecurity in the past. But the anonymity of those initial years boosted her confidence.

“No one was watching anyway,” she said with a laugh. “There was no previous reference point to intimidate us, no one to judge us. We were thrilled by the world of Gypsy jazz, and never felt pressure when we first delved into it. None of it was that important to begin with.”

Released in 2012, Monsieur Periné’s debut, “Hecho a Mano,” attracted the attention of tastemakers throughout the Americas with the sunny exuberance of songs like “La Tienda de Sombreros” and the luminous beauty of García’s voice. Their sophomore effort, 2015’s Caja de Música,” won the Latin Grammy for best new artist; it includes their biggest hit to date, “Nuestra Canción,” a duet with Dominican singer Vicente García that should be prescribed as an antidepressant. Two more LPs followed — 2018’s “Encanto Tropical” and 2023’s “Bolero Apocalíptico” — which expanded the band’s sound by exploring mainstream idioms like pop and reggaetón. Throughout the trajectory of their career, Monsieur Periné’s music has felt timeless.

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“Music functions like a time machine,” García said. “Some people are born with a strong affinity to past times. That sense is awakened in Santiago and myself. Maybe because our parents had us when they were older, we grew up listening to music from previous decades. We share that tendency, a common sensibility.”

Backstage, I ask García if I’m being a bit greedy in expecting Monsieur Periné to release more than just four albums in 12 years of existence. She grabs a bag of Ghirardelli mini squares, and after offering me one, has a bite of the dark chocolate as she ponders my question.

“To be perfectly honest, we have been a bit lazy on the productivity front,” she says with a sardonic smile.

“We were going to release ‘Bolero Apocalíptico’ years ago, but then the pandemic slowed us down, and it ended up coming out in 2023. But yeah, we could afford to be a little more energetic.” she adds in a hilarious, voice-over-like tone. “Estamos trabajando en ello. We’re working on that.”

She adds that Monsieur Periné plans to drop two separate projects next year. The first, an EP recorded with a big band, is an idea that came to them after an exhilarating concert with a big jazz ensemble. After that, they will release their still untitled fifth studio album. In the end, the lower than expected ticket sales could not hamper García’s desire to embrace new beautiful dreams.

“I feel very comfortable onstage, and I’m definitely not there for the applause,” she said. “I’m just as happy facing a crowd of 10 people and a multitude of 30,000.”

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— Ernesto Lechner

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Latinx Files
(Jackie Rivera / For The Times; Martina Ibá?ez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

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