You never know what just opening a door can lead to. Santiago Prieto was 12 years old and touring his new music school when the director opened a door to show him a practice room. Inside, a guitar student was playing Pink Floyd, and Prieto—who had enrolled as a classical violinist—said “wow.”
The other student was Nicolás Junca, and today the pair—both on guitar now—propels the often-swung rhythms of Monsieur Periné. The Colombian sextet took home a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in December, and in January set out their first U.S. tour. They even saw snow for the first time—it’s been a big year.
Monsieur Periné’s stage show is kind of like that first meeting of Prieto and Junca—each song opening another doorway to an unexpected musical world. One number starts with a four-on-the-floor swing beat, the next with a reggae one-drop feel. There are conga features and stabbing Afrobeat horn lines, hints of klezmer, instruments from the Andes, nods to Django Reinhardt, and even a brief appearance by a Stroh violin.
The band’s restless eclecticism is matched by their restless energy: one song ends and another has already begun. It would feel like an overwhelming grab bag if not for the constant pop hooks and excellent musicianship, not to mention the smooth delivery and charm of lead singer Catalina García.
So the show works, but the question remains: what do you call it? And how do you market it?
I talked with Prieto and Junca just after they wrapped up their East Coast tour, and they expressed both the joys and challenges of their wide-ranging sound. Prieto described the band as a “musical chameleon”—equally at home at a jazz festival or on an indie rock bill at South by Southwest. In the U.S. they are marketed as world music or Latin (which causes some confusion given that their name sounds French), while in Latin America they are called simply pop or alternative. As Junca puts it: “It has been really difficult to define ourselves.”
Still, if you ask him what the band sounds like, Junca’s answer is simple: “We sound like Colombia.”
That simple description says a lot. It speaks to the national pride of the band and their fans (at least one Colombian flag erupted out of the audience in Boston). It can also be read as an assertion of Colombian cosmopolitanism, a refusal to confine themselves to the folkloric styles of their native land. If bands from the U.S. are free to draw their names and sounds from around the world, why shouldn’t a band from Colombia do the same?
The group’s new album—Caja de Música—is more or less a mission statement to that effect. The name literally means “music box.” As Prieto tells it, the inspiration came from the wind-up music boxes the band would see in souvenir shops as they toured Europe and Central America. The album is a kind of record of those travels, each song evoking the sounds of a different place.
With new tour dates lined up in Europe, Central America, and the U.S.—as well as a collaboration with the National Symphony in Colombia—it is hard to say just what musical boxes and doorways Monsieur Periné will open next.
And in case you’re wondering just who this Mr. Periné is—I suggest Google Translate. One hint: the word is not actually French.