Los Amigos Invisibles

 

You've just got to see these invisible friends.

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By Jordan Levin

Los Amigos Invisibles, Venezuela's No. 1 alternative and ironic dance band, are a little fuzzy on their national and musical character. The group's six members have lived outside Venezuela for a decade. And their music, a gleeful dance party of synthesizer-driven disco-funk mixed with salsa, merengue, bossa nova, house, electronica and assorted other pop styles, is even more diffuse than their nationality.

But Los Amigos are clear on the fact that they like to have fun with their music and their lives.

``It's so hard to say what music is good or bad,'' Jose Luis ``Cheo'' Pardo, the Amigos' DJ, chief songwriter and producer, says from Caracas. Pardo, who lives in Brooklyn, was visiting his home city for a DJing job. ``So we stopped feeling guilty about our guilty pleasures. The other day I was watching Donny and Marie [Osmond] on the History Channel, and I was really enjoying the music. Sometimes people are like `You can't like that if you like music.' We're like, `Why not? We just play what we like.' ''

The Amigos (the name comes from a TV show the band members watched as kids; the host would sign off with ``Good night, my invisible friends'') have remained hipster-alternative Latin darlings since they released their first album in Caracas in 1995. Although their latest, the rather wistfully titled Commercial, won a Latin Grammy for Best Alternative Album last year, their music is as puzzling to the pop mainstream as ever. The band plays at Grand Central in downtown Miami on Friday night.

Lead singer Julio Briceño says they still believe they can be alternative and successful. ``Just ask Green Day or Radiohead,'' he says. Still, success is relative. ``We're not gonna be in the top 40. Our kind of music is not the music the Latin American masses consume on the radio.''

And success is measured by more than album sales and the crowds at stadium concerts.

``I'm happier than I've ever been,'' Briceño, one of three Amigos members to live in Miami, says as he heads toward the surf near his Sunny Isles Beach neighborhood. ``When I see Enrique Iglesias with the paparazzi, I'd rather be doing what I'm doing now -- going to the beach, then going home to work on music.''

The wild mix of sounds and dedication to happy pop stem from the musicians' childhoods in prosperous Caracas during the oil-boom 1970s and early '80s. Born in the early 1970s, they all grew up with disco and American pop plus Caribbean and Latin music and with in-home DJs who played eight hours of dance music in two languages and a world of styles.

``When we started we played Smiths and the Cure, but then we discovered Prince,'' Briceño says. ``We thought `Venezuela is a dance country; everyone loves to dance. Let's do a dance band, but not merengue.' ''

Even when their music or lyrics appear to mock cheesy disco riffs or party hedonism, the Amigos seem sincere about their love for simple pop pleasures. In videos such as Cuchi Cuchi, they play greasy babe-grappling machistas with a disarming combination of irony and glee.

``Sometimes it feels like we're making fun,'' Pardo says. ``But we're definitely having fun while we do it.''

On Commercial, the Amigos stretch into bossa nova and even perform a song in English, the sweetly melodic and romantic In Luv With You. Mexican songstress Natalia Lafourcade, another artist who straddles sophisticated and simple pop, harmonizes on Vivere Con Ti. The group has lived outside Venezuela since 2001. Three members live in New York. The experience of being foreigners has made them all more conscious of their origins and more comfortable with experimenting outside their culture, Pardo says.

```Living ouside Venezuela has made us more Venezuelan, because we know what being Venezuelan is about,'' he says. ``We're more conscious of being from a planet than a country. At the same time, we're part of a migration, a population of Venezuelans who live outside Venezuela. So the whole Venezuelan thing is kind of blurry now.''

Although the heated emotions of politics may have divided their country, they haven't divided the Amigos' audiences. Partying, apparently, is more powerful than politics.

``We play to the government crowd and the opposition crowd, and they both seem to enjoy our music,'' Briceño says.

``We try to stay away from politics,'' Pardo says. ``We have people from both sides come to our shows, and we need to respect that.''

The band has gotten into enough trouble just trying to have fun. The song Mentiras (Lies) was inspired by Facebook photos of the group with some girls on the beach in the Dominican Republic at dawn, after they'd told their girlfriends they had gone right home after a show. ``We were just hanging out,'' Pardo says, ``but it took a lot of explaining.''

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