By the time the Bogota-based band Monsieur Periné bounced onstage to accept the 2015 Latin Grammy for Best New Artist, they had already established themselves as a jaunty brigade of theatrical vaudevillians, intent on channeling the rollicking charms of 1930s swing and Latin jazz into eager, chipper tunes for the present day. A carefree jubilance enlivened their first two albums and acquainted listeners with the bubbly vocalist Catalina García, the guitarist Nicolás Junca, and the multi-instrumentalist Santiago Prieto. The leaders of the nostalgic ensemble often appeared more interested in jiving to their own beat than chasing trends, like a bunch of quirky theater kids doing the Lindy hop on prom night.
For a moment, it seemed like mainstream Latin music might fully embrace the vintage sensibilities championed by Monsieur Periné. The night they won their Latin Grammy, acoustic indie darling Natalia Lafourcade had scored five trophies for her folksy, back-to-roots album Hasta La Raíz. But reggaeton had been hungrily staking its claim on Latin pop, and urban artists—including J Balvin and Maluma, also from Colombia—were taking over the global charts. After last year’s viral hit “Despacito” vaulted reggaeton higher onto the international stage, it was hard to pinpoint the next step for Monsieur Periné, an eccentric band that professed a love of esoteric musicians like Lucho Bermúdez, the Colombian composer known for infusing his country’s music with the resonance of big-band jazz, and Django Reinhardt, the self-taught Romani-French guitarist who pioneered “gypsy jazz” despite losing mobility in his left hand during a fire.
Luckily, Monsieur Periné had already been thinking about their trajectory. Their first album, the independently released Hecho a Mano, was their most overt nod to old-timey nightclub traditions. On it, they mixed Colombian rhythms with elements of swing that French bands, such as Paris Combo, had revived in the late ’90s. Monsieur Periné dubbed their music cocktail “suín a la colombiana,” or swing Colombian-style, performed with their brand of smiley perkiness. On their early songs, like “Sabor A Mi,” García’s vocals would ring out gleefully, as though she were beaming through each verse. At their live shows, the band would throw on rainbow-bright outfits that resembled traditional Colombian folk costumes—a constant wink to the fact that these were young musicians reinterpreting their romantic version of the past.
Monsieur Periné’s music attracted the producer Eduardo José Cabra, who, under the stage name Visitante, is one-half of the reggaeton duo Calle 13. Cabra produced the band’s 2015 release Caja De Musica, which includes songs with Rubén Albarrán, the lead singer of the decades-old Mexican rock band Café Tacuba, and Dominican breakout artist Vicente García, and pushed Monsieur Periné into poppier territory.
For their third album, the members of Monsieur Periné had a choice: They could return to more “suín a la colombiana” or continue with their pop evolution. On Encanto Tropical, which was released on May 18, they’ve chosen the latter path. The album is their first on a major label, Sony Music Latin, and boasts the band’s signature retro touch while also offering sleeker, more commercially minded production choices. When the first single, “Bailar Contigo,” came out in April, one could hear a shift toward the contemporary through a zippy synth line that punctuated the song’s subdued bossa nova melody. The throb of a tambor alegre mid-drum recalled the spirit of popular Afro-Colombian dance beats. More telling, perhaps, is that the track was co-written by “Despacito” producer Mauricio Rengifo.
Still, Monsieur Periné has been balancing its new sounds delicately. The song “La Sombra” features the Mexican singer Leonel García from Sin Bandera, a duo that became wildly famous in the early 2000s. But instead of appropriating the massive, R&B-tinged radio hits that Sin Bandera is known for, Monsieur Periné splays his smooth vocals on a dark, unquestionably vintage bolero. On “La Tregua,” Argentine singer Vicentico of the rock band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs croons over a syncopating cumbia beat that feels rickety with age. The band makes sure to build pop elements into their existing universe, rather than changing their own approach completely.
It helps that García’s distinctive soprano, which NPR perfectly described as “waif-like,” works well with a variety of singing styles. Her youthful tone could sell bubblegum pop as successfully as cabaret covers. She often recalls the charismatic Mexican vocalist Julieta Venegas, who actually helped the band write the song “Veneno” on this album. García tests out a folksy style on the melancholy bandoneon arrangements on “Guayaba y Flores,” and sings over a flurry of Andean flutes on the vallenato-influenced “Tarde.”
A noticeable maturation has taken place lyrically as well. Monsieur Periné’s early repertoire included lots of wide-eyed songs about love and loss. On this project, they’ve thought about new narratives they want to share, and they’ve settled on introspective verses that celebrate their Colombian heritage and tropical landscapes. In an interview with the regional Colombian newspaper El País, García explained that Encanto Tropical aims to “question the cliché of the tropics’ being palm trees and the beach” and “take people on a profound journey through new tropical dimensions.” The album’s eponymous opener starts with a choir of euphoric birds, which paves the way for García to dive into a poetic ode about her home: “I was born from an ocean wave / Corals and flowers dressed my skin / In my hair the aroma left behind from coffee plantations / Perfumed the sky of my native land.”
The price to pay is that the band has lost a bit of its swing step. In some places, this is a good thing: Monsieur Periné’s theatrics and upbeat imitations could sometimes result in a cuteness that diverted attention from their impressive musicality. Campiness exists only in traces here, namely on “Veneno,” a track that, with its chorus about love bites, feels overly sweet and impish. Later, an interlude called “La Hora Sublime del Bolero” takes the form of an old radio ad, announcing that “the hour of the sublime bolero” has begun. It’s kitschy, but the song that follows is “Me Vas a Hacer Falta,” a bolero brought to the modern day through Prieto, who is an emotionally adept singer in his own right.
Still, some of the pizzazz of Hecho a Mano is missing on Encanto Tropical. Part of this is the inevitable growth of artists; Monsieur Periné is no longer made up of animated college-aged kids earnestly performing their favorite foot-stomping tunes at weddings and social events. The music on this album isn’t the same excited love letter to Reinhardt, bursting with the trills of intricate guitar arpeggios and the high whine of vibrating brass. Now in their 30s, the musicians have finessed a sound that is undoubtedly elegant, but a more comfortable fit with Latin pop genres. Fans meeting the band at this stage should revisit the raw, unbridled energy of their debut to understand the full evolution and appreciate their start as renegade swing kids.
Even if Encanto Tropical is a more restrained proposal, it’s still striking enough to be an antidote for the sameness that often overtakes Latin pop music. The final song, “Vámonos,” opens with the rustic twang of Brazilian cavaquinho guitars and then soars into a chorus about a far away journey. The lyrics tell the story of displaced Colombians who had to leave the countryside amid civil war, and the writing is reminiscent of South American folk songs that evoke natural imagery and vast landscapes. As García sings over a melody inspired by bambuco, a style of campesino dance music, she beckons listeners to come away with her. It’s an evocative way to end the album, showing that even while embracing new conventionality, the band is still intent on transporting listeners to another time and place.