Los Amigos Invisibles throws a party
In the early 1990s, the Caracas music scene was as factionalized as Venezuela's volatile political culture. Salsa fans stuck to their dance clubs, and rock 'n' rollers wouldn't be caught dead listening to a merengue band. But the musicians who came together in Los Amigos Invisibles just wanted to have a good time.
"We looked like a rock band, but we really into acid jazz and salsa," says Los Amigos Invisibles guitarist and songwriter José Luis Pardo, aka DJ Afro, who performs with the band Thursday at Santa Clara's Avalon, Friday at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz and Saturday at Oakland's New Parish.
"When we started, people were really negative about what we were doing," he says, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. "But before long, we connected with a lot of people who said I don't only have rock or salsa records. A lot of people started to be like us, playing a little of everything.
"That's what the Caribbean is for, mixing up a little bit of reggae, salsa, rock, funk, everything."
Through luck, pluck, brilliant pop craftsmanship and a hard-earned reputation for giving incendiary performances, Los Amigos have found an avid international audience. The group's 1994 debut album "A Typical and Autoctonal Venezuelan Dance Band" proved to be anything but typical, and made the six-piece combo stars at home.
With its label in New York City and a Grammy and Latin Grammy nomination for 2000's "Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey Into Space," the band relocated en masse to Gotham. The move paid creative dividends when the group hooked up with house music maven Little Louie Vega. Vega produced Los Amigos Invisibles' widely hailed "The Venezuelan Zinga Son, Vol. 1" in 2004.
The following year, Los Amigos decided to reclaim their independence and return to their roots with an album covering Venezuelan pop hits from the 1960s through the '90s. "Super Pop Venezuela" was released on the band's new label Gozadera Records. When the CD came out in the U.S. in 2006, the band earned another Grammy nomination, for Best Urban Latin Alternative Album. But its impact was much greater in Venezuela, not so much because of its creative reclamation of the nation's musical history, but for offering a new business model for indie artists.
"After arriving in the U.S., we started to understand the seriousness of owning all the rights to your music," Pardo says. "In Venezuela, we didn't have the capability of creating a label. With Gozadera, the best thing that happened is doing the music we like, recording it and putting it out. It might not be the best economic plan, but we don't owe anything to anybody."
Over the past year, Los Amigos has reached new audiences, touring extensively as a double bill with New Orleans funk star Trombone Shorty (they share the same manager).
"It was a great thing for both bands," Pardo says. "Often it was more a dance party than a Latin party. We love that diversity. We didn't know each other at the start, and at the end, we were all hanging out and eating meals together. We're all on the same trip, trying to make music, going city to city."
Sometimes it seems as if the band just can't help striking pay dirt. In 2009, Los Amigos released the hit album "Commercial," which won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. It's a hook-laden affair, a collection of infectiously grooving songs consciously designed to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Last March, the band released a follow-up album, "Not So Commercial," drawn from tracks recorded during the "Commercial" sessions but deemed too idiosyncratic for the broad-appeal concept. But "Not So Commercial" is every bit as appealing as its predecessor.
"This is what we love," Pardo says. "We still enjoy ourselves and the miracle of playing with our friends. We don't think we've done our best album yet. We still have lots of energy, and there are goals to be met."
Los Amigos Invisibles
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Avalon, 777 Lawrence Expressway, Santa Clara
Tickets: $15, www.avalonsantaclara.com