Good music doesn’t need to fit neatly into one genre to be good. Truthfully, there is a lot of really great music being made that is hard to classify, often deliberately. Genre helps us as listeners define what we’re listening and group it neatly with things that are similar and contrast it with things that are different. Genre helps us to look for inspiration and try to pin down influences that shape the artistic process. Genre comforts us- that something about this song or that artist belongs within the whole of its genre. Genre, however, does not tell us if music is good and is not at all helpful in evaluating whether something is beautiful or not. The music of Peruvian band Kanaku y el Tigre is difficult to classify generically, but it is beautiful. Kanaku y el Tigre simply write and perform good music.
In the Spring and Summer of 2011 I was living in Lima, Peru. I spent six months as a student at a university in the city, and was incredibly lucky to do some traveling within the country. I grew much better at speaking Spanish, made lifelong friends, and saw a lot of amazing things. I did not discover a whole lot of new music. For whatever reason I had a great deal of difficulty breaking into the music scene in Lima and went to precious few concerts. This is especially distressing now knowing that I could have been around just as Kanaku y el Tigre saw their debut album rise to success locally and internationally. Instead I read about the band for the first time just last year through MTV Iggy and was instantly hooked. The band’s debut album, Caracoles, has great replay value; it’s easy to dissolve oneself into the songs to the point that another listen reveals more sublime details that went completely unnoticed before. This is a nice magic trick for a band that describes itself as “wandering folk”.
Kanaku y el Tigre formed in 2010 around the songwriting nucleus of Nicolás Saba and Bruno Bellatín, a pair of Limeños with a taste for indie-folk strums. Bellatín had honed his skills on an acoustic guitar while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and Saba’s voice lent a new dimension to the acoustic tones that Bellatín was plying. After rounding out their lineup with the additions of Noel Marambio, Marcial Rey, David Chang, Fernando Gonzalez, and Manuel Loli the band set to recording Caracoles and growing their profile throughout Latin America. To date the band still has just one studio release, but has performed in festivals from the heart of their native Lima to Mexico City.
Scenes are painted in Kanaku y el Tigre’s music. This is music to be played on a sunny balcony. It’s music to be played while shuffling down city streets on a warm day. This is music to be played as a dinner party transitions to a cozy evening with friends. The “wandering folk” label does seem to apply, but there are definite elements of pop, jazz, and rock to be found in the songs on Caracoles. The group almost exclusively uses acoustic instruments, but also holds a fascinating with toy instruments and “cualquier cosa que suene” – anything that makes sound. These songs are built around soft harmonies and acoustic guitar strums, but are colored with antique pianos and ukuleles. Harmonicas and accordions make appearances as airily brushed drums are tastefully applied. Upright bass punctuates staccato moments, while toy glockenspiels and turning bicycle gears help build the world around Saba’s delicate storytelling.
The tracklisting on Caracoles spans a wide variety of sonic and lyrical content. The title track and “Lucia” are plaintive folk songs about life and love in Lima. “Bicicleta” is a midtempo indie symphony, while “Tu Verano, Mi Invierno” and “El Funeral” are bouncy and simplistic in a way that’s reminiscent of French chanson songs. The album reaches its emotional height in “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” as swaying vocals rise over accordion and distant drumming, and an acapella falsetto line immediately precedes a kazoo solo. This is where anticipation is bred in Kanaku y el Tigre’s songs: an arrangement is just as likely to include a brass chorale as to feature a spotlight on a kazoo or tinny bells. As brilliantly as “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” soars, the 1-2 punch of the English-language “Exorcist Love Song” and the slinky “Pascal y Julian” take the music to a slightly darker place. “Exorcist Love Song” still jumps and jives despite a lyrical subtext about a destructive relationship, while “Pascal and Julian” is a duet about existential dread. These songs are at once familiar and foreign, as though the band has purposefully inserted discomforting chords and words into an otherwise playful body of work. Maybe that is exactly the point.
As a band Kanaku y el Tigre is still highly active. Despite a fairly low profile on social media, the enigmatic group is still touring and performing in support of Caracoles, and seem to serve as curators and activists for similar artists. The most reliable outlet of information on the band is their facebook page, as the group doesn’t appear to have an official website. A twitter account in the band’s name does exist, but hasn’t ever composed a single tweet. In lieu of these traditional tracking methods, the band is best followed in video and in the steadily growing number of glowing reviews they’ve received. In any case, nobody seems to be listening to Kanaku y el Tigre right now, but the wondrous surprises that come so effortlessly and pleasantly from the Peruvian folksters’ music assuredly earn them a place in any music lover’s rotation.