Arts, Culture & Media

Colombian Gypsy Swing from Monsieur Periné

The story of Monsieur Periné begins with a life-altering, chance encounter on the internet — and no, this isn't an online dating story. It was the early 2000s, and Santiago Prieto and Nicolás Junca, two young musicians from Bogotá, were fooling around on the peer-to-peer file sharing network Kazaa when they randomly downloaded a song with the intriguing title "Minor Swing." The song was by Django Reinhardt, the brilliant French guitarist who invented the hot swing sound known as "gypsy jazz" in the 1930s and '40s. Right away, Prieto and Junca fell for it, hard. "We were 16-years-old, and we were in love with the sound of Django," says Prieto. "We started playing the rhythm that is known as le pompe, and we started mixing it with many things, with many instruments that were not from jazz but from Latin music. And we started making our special flavor." There was nobody in Colombia who could teach Prieto and Junca how to play the music, so they picked it up the old fashioned way — by listening on repeat. Soon, they brought together a group of musician friends to play around with the sound and Monsieur Periné was born. The band replaced Django Reinhardt's guitar with the charango, a pint-sized string instrument from the Andes. They also brought in the clarinet and the accordion, both heavily used in Colombian cumbia music, as well as adding lots of percussion. Last, they came up with a catchy name to sell the idea: suin a la colombiana – swing, Colombian style. Monsieur Periné brings rhythms from all over Latin America — from tango to Afro-Peruvian music and Mexican norteño, and superimposes them onto the French gypsy jazz template. According to vocalist Catalina García, Latin music and swing make natural bedfellows. "It's because our way of understanding music in Latin America is through dance and the body," says García. "So swing became something really familiar for us right away, because we can dance to it." What nobody could have guessed is how much of a hit Monsieur Periné's experiment in Colombian swing would be. At the Vive Latino festival in Mexico City, which took place in March, a massive crowd gathered to watch the band perform. On stage, the band was dressed in colorful suits an sundresses, looking like a collection of French pastries. They put on a wild show, leaping and dancing and chasing each other around the stage with their instruments. "It's something brand new, something that has never been heard before," says Mitze Alejandro, a 16-year-old Mexican fan in the audience. "It's something super tropical but with swing. I just really like it." While the band has a fan base in Mexico, back home in Colombia, Monsiuer Periné has become a legitimate sensation. They pack major concert halls and get played regularly on the radio. They've also begun to take off elsewhere in South America, having already done tours in Peru and Brazil as well. This summer, the band will be on festival stages throughout Europe for the first time, including in Hildesheim, Germany for that city's annual Django Reinhardt Festival. "It's very surprising because our music is not really commercial and mainstream music. So it's weird, but… emocionante," says singer Catalina García, using the Spanish word for "exciting." García also says it's exciting just to be making music in Colombia today. Over the past decade, the local scene has exploded with new bands, many of whom are experimenting with mixing international sounds and Colombian folkloric music in bold ways, and they've been getting new found attention from the Latin music industry at large. Most agree — Colombia is hot right now. According to García, this renaissance is related to Colombia's tumultuous recent past. "I think that because of the state of war, the violence we lived through for 60 years, everybody in Colombia is trying to change our face to the world, by the language of art and music," says García. "By looking at our roots, it's the only way to save our identity."

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