Interview: La Perla – From La Perla’s Eye View (November 2021)

If there’s a band which thoroughly embodies the engaged character and dedication of the new Colombian music wave, that must be La Perla

Rather than considering a strictly musical perspective, our focus lies on the social and environmental consciousness and militancy which the all-female trio formed by Diana Sanmiguel, Giovanna Mogollón and Karen Forero emphatically displays in its songs. 

Blending and re-interpreting the lush folk repertoires and expressions of their country (from Afro-Colombian to Andean styles and Caribbean to Latin rhythms), the Bogotá-based singers, percussionists and researchers have refined their sound becoming one of the most thought-provoking and dance-inducing acts which sprouted and germinated from the fertile cultural soil of the Colombian capital.

In October, we had the pleasure to meet and have a chat with them in Porto during Womex. There, they presented and let us party to one of the most exhilarating showcases of the Expo, which also introduced the “Womexicans” to some of their new tunes.

Our interview inevitably set out from there, from ‘Selva’, their new single, first-track extracted from their upcoming LP and genuine epitome of La Perla’s message.

Diana Sanmiguel: The last song we released came out on Monday. This week. It’s a single titled ‘Selva’ and is inspired by Brazilian samba. 

For the new album, we wanted to investigate and pay homage to Afro-Latin American music as well, not only Afro-Colombian. So, we also looked for elements from Brazil, Peru, the Gran Caribe region… They are all very important in our sound research.

Before ‘Selva’, we only released another song, ‘Guayabo’ back in February this year, last year… February this year. I have to say that I almost lost my sense of time with the pandemic.

As it happened to too many artists all over the world, the pandemic, its lockdowns and deriving rules and restrictions deeply affected the last two years of La Perla as well…

DS: For a period, it was quite difficult for us in Colombia. It was all closed. There were no concerts, we had no live music for eight months or more. We were fortunate to do two or three virtual concerts in those months. But it was not even close to having a real audience. 

Giovanna Mogollón: Yes, to perform in front of a camera is not like performing in front of an audience. So it was difficult. But let’s say that we already have concerts in place, and that helped us to keep our chin up.

DS: We already have some dates for next year: we are coming back to Europe in the summer, then some dates in Mexico, and we will keep on doing gigs on the circuit that already knows us. So, we will be continuing going to the places where we have an audience.

For a band like La Perla, the live dimension is just crucial. Their natural habitat is on stage and if you have ever experienced one of their shows you know the amount of rhythmic energy they emanate performing. While, if you have never had that pleasure, you missed a collective, percussive music blast able to ignite the audience as soon as the musicians start to beat their drums…

GM: When you play live, it’s a continuous communication and exchange with the audience. It’s not only about giving people your energy through the music you play and the way you play it, but it’s also about receiving people’s energy. 

For example, last year, when we did the online shows, there was nobody physically sitting or standing in front of us. We only had a camera “watching” us. We felt a bit of loneliness. Music was there, notes were there, rhythms were there, but there was an overall feeling of emptiness, there was no exchange. While, when there are people in front of you, it’s about the energy flowing back and forth. So, when you are performing on stage, you feel the need of having and seeing people in front of you, and you feel the need of interacting with them. 

As well as the dedicated and talented musicians and attention-getting performers once on stage, La Perla is a trio of music researchers and their music investigations deeply influence the sound of the band..

DS: Our research work is based on our music listening. We listen to a lot of music. Then, we start discerning the rhythms we like and we adapt them to our format and our style. Then, we move to learning the voice and the sound… For example, with Brazilian music, it goes like tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc-tuc-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. We learn that rhythm and we try to emulate and play it with our drums.

There are several, several ways in which we compose our music and they are always different. By the way, what we usually do is that someone proposes a melody, another one comes up with the rhythm and between all of us we add new ideas. At the same time, between all of us, we also concretise and finalise those ideas. So, it’s all about what we all feel that can work or not.

Since the project’s inception, back in 2014, La Perla’s sound has grown and evolved. If the artists’ music listening have always been eclectic and far-reaching, the band only started to feature them in their compositions from 2017, when the musicians moved away from a solely traditional repertoire.

DS: Our sound really changed in 2017. 2017 was indeed when we started composing and recording our own songs because what we used to do before was to play songs from the traditional repertoire.

Then, in 2017, we recorded our first EP and we started to follow a different path in which we were writing our own tunes, using our voice to say what we wanted, also including all the influences that we had accumulated until that point. And that was very important for us because in our sound there’s so much more than traditional Afro-Colombian music from the Caribbean Coast. So, we began to include other music languages as well, like rap, rock, punk, champeta, and other rhythms.

Being born and bred in a fertile cultural environment like Bogotá’s has only helped a band like La Perla to discover new music languages and broaden its own one.

DS: The Bogotá scene has a peculiarity which is that it is nourished by all the regions of Colombia. In Bogotá you can find musicians from all over the country and therefore the influences are very diverse and come from many other places. There are a huge amount of new proposals.

GM: …and of course, Bogotá being a capital city, migrants from many regions gather there, so you can find people from the Pacific, Caribbean and the Amazon region… In the same way, their cultures gather there too and you have all these influences enriching the music scene of the city. Bogotá is also a really rock city. For example, Rock al Parque, which is one of the largest rock festivals in Latin America, happens there every year.

There are several bands from Bogotá that we follow and are passionate about. Some of them play contemporary cumbia, let’s say, a more electronic version. For example, there are Frente Cumbiero, Los Pirañas, Meridian Brothers, Romperayo… Then, there’s also a really important wave of singer/songwriters. For example, there are two young female artists who are becoming very popular and are also enjoying critical acclaim and they are La Muchacha and Briela Ojeda. Then, in the rap scene, there’s N. Hardem, who writes really good lyrics.

DS: The truth is that the music scene is huge in Bogotá. The list of music suggestions would be far too long to write down… 

As well as Bogotá, the Caribbean region is also a special place for La Perla and the musicians’ inspiration.

DS: When it comes to the Caribbean region, one of the artists who I admire and love the most is Rita Indiana from the Dominican Republic. She plays Dominican merengue but also takes it to other places…

Then, we are also inspired by and like Cuba a lot, the effervescence and dynamism of its music. And if we go a little further, we also like Jamaican sounds like reggae and dancehall.

Despite the diversity and (at times) illusory inclusive character of the world-music world, acts like La Perla featuring only women musicians are still quite an exception. So, it’s always encouraging to get-to-know them. Even more, when this characteristic wasn’t pre-calculated or engineered.

DS: There are clearly more male musicians than female ones in the music scene. Yes, there are more groups formed by men, but right now, at least in Colombia, there is an important wave of women playing all kinds of instruments and groups composed by women. When it comes to La Perla, we didn’t decide to form an all-female band. It was because of the affinity we had. We formed the group out of our friendship.

GM: That’s right, we formed the band because we were friends before being musicians. We have been friends for so many years now and that was what led us to get together. In our case, friendship is the affiliation. It wasn’t premeditated, we weren’t thinking about forming an all-female band just for the sake of it or to be the flag bearers of feminism. 

On the other hand, there’s undoubtedly an eloquent socially and environmentally conscious drive spurring and animating La Perla and their songs. And ‘Selva’ is a clear example. A drive that might be in danger of being softened by the language barrier and the upbeat music they play.

GM: We have travelled to perform in countries where Spanish is not widely spoken. For example, we played in France, Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom and there were many people who did not understand what we were singing. At times, they catch some words, but other times they don’t understand them at all. It’s a very thin line depending on whether people know Spanish or not.

Karen Forero: I think that, in some respects, that could also be something positive because even if people don’t entirely understand our lyrics, they can still relate to and engage with the rhythm, with the drums and the energy we put into our music.

Energy that will surely overflow from the upcoming debut album of the trio, which is planned for early/mid-2022 and will let you wander around Latin America and its music traditions.

DS: The idea is to launch the full album early next year, in March or April. It is going to be our very first LP. All we released till now has only been digital, online and they were only singles or EPs. So, the upcoming album is going to be our first full-length release including 10 songs.

GM: Yes, they are 10 original songs. One of them is a collaboration with Frente Cumbiero, another one with La Dame Blanche and a third one with Briela Ojeda and Delfina Dib, an MC from Argentina. The album is a bit of a journey into Latin American music and cumbia in particular. It indeed features Peruvian chicha, a cumbia rebajada inspired by Mexico. Then, we wrote a punk-sounding tune referring to Bogotá and a more “Brazilian” one influenced by samba, which is ‘Selva’. We wanted to connect Latin America through its music expressions, starting from Mexico and reaching Argentina and Chile. We also wanted to show the different versions of cumbia across the region, because each country has its own one.

As we often do, we also closed our interview with La Perla asking the band members to introduce their project and sound in a few words to someone who has never listened to them before…

DS: La Perla is a vocal trio inspired by traditional music from the Colombian Caribbean region, by cumbia, bullerengue and the gaita. But we are also inspired by the Gran Caribe and its music, by Dominican merengue, champeta, and guaguancó and by more urban things like hip-hop and rock as well.

GM: We are La Perla and we are experts in making you have fun!