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Los Amigos Invisibles' stylistic self-pronouncement on their 1995 debut was misleading. The album was called A Typical and Autoctonal Venezuelan Dance Band, a title clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
First, there's nothing typical about Amigos. Second, there aren't many Venezuelan dance bands, and at the time of the group's inception, there was virtually none. Finally, autoctonal isn't a real word. And thus began a humorous streak that has marked the six-piece band's 14-year career.
Even calling the group simply a "dance band" doesn't really do it justice — classifying Amigos' sound presents a challenge in itself. "When they ask what type of musician I am whenever I'm crossing customs and immigration," frontman Julio Briceño says, he responds, "'We're a Latin-funk-house band.'"
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Yes, that's a way of simplifying it. Of the many dance-music influences in the group's sound, house is chief. But there's much more. Alternative riffs weave around Brazilian-tinged grooves from samba to bossa, and the undeniable Latin percussion of tropical styles such as salsa moves everything along.
Briceño says the patchwork is a result of the members' individual tastes. "Our backgrounds as musicians, you know, some of us had more Latin influence, some of us more New Wave, punk, ska," he says. "But when we got together, the idea was to form a dance band."
Besides Briceño, the band comprises bassist Catire, drummer Mamel, guitarist Cheo, percussionist Maurimix, and keyboardist Odnam — yes, all pseudonyms. They came together in the early '90s in response to the highly stratified music scene in their hometown of Caracas.
"In Venezuela, you either had salsa bands or rock bands. No one was doing anything funky in 1993 when we started," Briceño says. "We figured we could be a rock band, but were inspired by electronic music and acid jazz. So what we always tried to do, with no samplers or sequencers, especially when we play live, was to mix all these influences."
After a few years of gigging around Venezuela, Amigos finally released that 1995 debut through EMI Venezuela. But not until the following year did the band's fate truly change. In 1996, Amigos headed to New York with the intention of playing a few gigs and selling some CDs. They realized the former at the legendary alternative/world music club S.O.B.'s, and placed 20 copies of the disc in a record shop in the city. There the legendary David Byrne, of Talking Heads and his own Luaka Bop label, would stumble across the group's music.
"He's one of our heroes," Briceño says. "David just came to us through a miracle... and offered us a contract." So the next year saw the recording of their sophomore release, The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera, which Amigos recorded under the leadership of renowned producer and Yerba Buena founder Andres Levin.
Eventually, though, the band made the big leap. In 2001, Amigos settled in New York City. Soon they were catapulted from "typical Venezuelan dance band" to internationally recognized alternative/dance act. It's been 14 years since that first record and about 20 since their humble beginnings on the Caracas club circuit. And during that time, the band has released eight records (six of them studio albums), including the most recent, Comercial, which dropped in June. On the strength of those records, the band has also garnered five Grammy nods (two general market, three Latin) and amassed a devoted fan base.
But despite the new record's title and sound, fans shouldn't be worried the band is selling out. "When we made the record and listened to the songs, we were like, 'Whoa, these songs are very commercial.' And that wasn't really the intention, so we wanted to make a joke out of it," Briceño says.
One thing that has not changed is Los Amigos Invisibles' commitment to creating music that's the soundtrack to a good time. And a good time is pretty much par for the course anytime they take the stage. "You're gonna move your body and sweat," Briceño says. "You're gonna meet the boy or the girl of your dreams. You're gonna have fun with Amigos."