Photo by author.
One day, near the end of the 90s, former Talking Heads frontman and legendary musician, writer and visual artist David Byrne was browsing a New York City’s Tower Records, when he found a CD with a catchy title: A Typical and Autoctonal Venezuelan Dance Band. Maybe he found the name funny. Maybe he was just intrigued, unfamiliar with Venezuelan music, even after showing knowledge of the rich musical traditions of the Spanish Caribbean in Rei Momo. Byrne took that CD home, and he liked the mix of funk, acid jazz, disco and pop. A straight shot to the part of your brain where dancing is located.
He liked it so much that he went after the performers, a bunch of young middle-class guys from Caracas who made a friend plant the CD in several stores, hoping for something to happen.
Los Amigos Invisibles became a Luaka Bop artist and were about to discover, thanks to Byrne, a whole new world behind the mountains surrounding Caracas.
A freaking miracle did. Los Amigos Invisibles became a Luaka Bop artist and were about to discover, thanks to Byrne, a whole new world behind the mountains surrounding Caracas. They realized that staying in Venezuela, with its small market, wouldn’t allow them to make a living doing what they loved. That was several years before the big waves of Venezuelan migration which includes, of course, a good deal of talented musicians now carving out a niche in the main destinations of the diaspora.
So the whole band moved to NYC, where they had their new label and agent booking gigs, and jumped into the thrilling yet difficult lives of professional musicians.
The Experience of the Global Road
“We didn’t know much about what we were getting into when we signed with Luaka Bop,” says frontman Julio Briceño. They started touring the U.S., playing in bars for a few Byrne fans and maybe some Venezuelans in a new world of hard, constant work, where everyone pulled their own weight. They played once at a bar where The Wailers had just played, and soon after they ran into Bob Marley’s legendary band at a Denny’s, where they stopped to eat by the highway. Julio and bassist José Miguel “Catire” Torres, percussionist Mauricio Arcas, keyboardist Armando Figueredo, guitar player José Luis “Cheo” Pardo and drummer Juan Manuel “Mamel” Roura could look around and realize that their Caraqueño funk took them to a whole other league.
They saw more live shows, learning how a high-profile concert had to be in terms of sound quality, logistics and performance. They gained confidence in their music and realized they could play it anywhere, no matter if the audience at an Australian festival was unable to understand the lyrics, full of Caracas jargon, or the name of the band, a joke on the way the conservative writer Arturo Uslar Pietri used to welcome the audience of his TV show, Valores Humanos: “Buenas noches, mis amigos invisibles.”
But more importantly, they learned to be the stage-powerhouse they still are, because Los Amigos Invisibles is one of those bands you may enjoy a lot with your headphones, but that you can fully understand at a venue, at night, feeling that wild party energy and its effect on people.
They lived abroad, but still played in Venezuela. “Our absence was barely noticed,” says Julio, “and I don’t remember any backlash about us leaving. On the contrary, we felt supported, like a message of ‘you guys go there and open the trail for the rest of us.’ I still sense that among our fans”. The final years of the 90s and the first of the current century were good for Venezuelan bands, with many events all through the year, all around the country. There was a lot of attention from the public and the media, and a good deal of available sponsors. And the Amigos kept evolving as musicians.
The Musical Legacy
Since that 1995 album discovered by Byrne, Los Amigos Invisibles kept adding ingredients to their sound, broadening their influences, relying on the repertoire of Venezuelan streets, taxis, and buses: merengue, salsa, cumbia, vallenato. They became mainstream in Venezuela, with lyrics full of eros and irresistible beats. But in their albums, they always reserve space to be experimental and honor their ancestors, doing, for instance, onda nueva, an exquisite jazz genre developed by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero, mixed with bossa nova and Caracas traditional music.
Los Amigos Invisibles is one of those bands you may enjoy with your headphones, but that you can fully understand at a venue, at night, feeling that wild party energy and its effect on people.
One of the many little known facts about Venezuela is the quality and complexity of its jazz scene. In a country with an already long tradition of classical music schools and teachers, and a very diverse and sophisticated folklore, the cultural relationship with the U.S. that developed quickly during the 20th century, thanks to the oil business, came to enrich Venezuelan music in several ways. It brought jazz to clubs, hotels and radio stations; it funded a middle class able to travel and learn about music abroad; it made Caracas a city of immigrants where many musicians from different parts of the world, like Austrian-born Gerry Weil, joined forces to compose, play and record rock, salsa, pop and jazz of a very high quality.
This is the realm where the U.S.-based stars of classical music grew, such as pianist Gabriela Montero and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, but it’s also where jazz virtuosos like Otmaro Ruiz, Gerardo Rosales or Aquiles Báez acquired the skills that took them to renowned venues all around the world. Every member of Los Amigos Invisibles comes from a city where you could buy the latest Chick Corea album in a mall, before a Peter Gabriel concert at El Poliedro, and spend the rest of the evening dancing salsa in Sabana Grande.
The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (1998), recorded in Caracas and New York, makes you think of a New York jazzman trapped in Chacaíto Bvd. (or of a completely tropical Jamiroquai). In 2000, the conceptual album Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey into Space got them their first Latin Grammy nomination. In 2003, with The Venezuelan Zinga Son, Vol. 1, they achieved commercial success, enthusiastic international reviews, and another Latin Grammy nomination. Los Amigos Invisibles finished their contract with Luaka Bop, launched their own label, Gozadera Records, and released in 2005 the brilliant cover album Super Pop Venezuela. In 2009, with Commercial, Los Amigos Invisibles finally won the Latin Grammy in the Best Alternative Music Album category. Since then, they also made Not So Commercial, to reload their ancient acid jazz vibes, Repeat After Me, in 2013, and another conceptual album in 2017, El Paradise.
A Typical and Autoctonal Venezuelan Expat Band
Cheo, Armando and Mauricio left the band, “tired, basically,” explains Julio. “We must play a repertoire people love to hear. We can’t do like Radiohead does, refusing to play ‘Creep’.” New York City is also history: Julio and Mamel settled in Miami and Catire married a Mexican girl and moved to Mexico City. “Mexico is where we’re bigger,” says the bassist. “Here, people are more open to what we do. In the States, if you are not U2 or Beyoncé, you’re nothing.”
A quarter-century after they became a blip on the radar, Los Amigos Invisibles are still around, with a solid fan base in several countries and a rich discography
They keep working hard: they play all year round, everywhere, uploading their music to all the platforms they can, like Spotify, selling merchandising. They still rehearse every week, like when they all lived in Caracas and New York, but now they do it on Skype.
A quarter-century after they became a blip on the radar, Los Amigos Invisibles are still around, with a solid fan base in several countries and a rich discography, touring non-stop in venues and festivals around the world. They keep creating. That “new sound” of the 90s isn’t that new anymore, but it’s quite alive and fresh, and you bet it’s beloved in Venezuela and abroad.