For whatever reason, Latin music still maintains an aura of exoticism among even the most well-intentioned American listeners, leading to shallow misperceptions and clumsy ethnic generalizations. All too often, music from throughout Latin America is described with cliched terms like "sultry" and "lively," descriptions that say more about the slow progress of cross-cultural understanding than the music itself.
In any case, one need not look to other cultures for opportunities to stereotype. Homespun styles like lounge, disco and funk are often (irritatingly) caricatured by their most enthusiastic proponents. For Caracas-via-New York sextet Los Amigos Invisibles, those styles -- and the kitsch that inevitably surrounds them -- served as an entry point into American culture during the band's formative years in the early '90s.
Los Amigos play an impressively broad range of Latin musical styles fused with American forms. Even as far back as 1998, when they opened American tours with Soul Coughing and Cornershop, the band's striking onstage chemistry and formidable command of music was clearly evident (even though some of the members were still in their teens). Since then, they've expanded their range, simulating DJ/electronic music with live instruments and incorporating jazz.
So how do they feel about the possibility of being dismissed as a novelty, their musical skills overlooked?
"We don't care about that," says guitarist and principal songwriter Jose Luis Pardo. "We take the music seriously. That's the joy of a musician, trying to challenge yourself every time -- like doing a salsa track, or an '80s disco track and trying to do it well. But if people have the fun that they need to, we're focused more on that." Interestingly, Pardo says American audiences are more open to new sounds than are Venezuelans, about whom he says, "for them, it's more about the hits."
Of course, Los Amigos' overtly lascivious lyrics don't exactly cry out to be taken seriously. For example, Pardo explains that the title of their fourth and latest album, The Venezuelan Zinga Son Vol. 1, translates, roughly, as "the rhythm of Venezuelan f••king." Song titles in the band's catalog include "Ponerte en Cuatro" (which means "get on all fours"), "Masturbation Session," "El Disco Anal," "Superfucker" and ... well, you get the picture.
"Venezuela is really open sexually, even though it's very Catholic," Pardo explains, adding that the band's lyrics represent "the way our generation speaks."
So what would the Venezuelan reaction be to a woman who sang so frankly about sex?
"Some people might disagree with me, but I think it would be okay," he muses.
And what do Los Amigos' parents think?
"Well," Pardo laughs, "it's kind of like when your Mom catches you smoking in the restroom and your parents don't say anything, but they know you're smoking."
In case you're wondering, Pardo says the band was protested once for its lyrics, by a feminist group outside a show in Kansas City. "We can understand that," he says, but offers little more on the subject, except to say -- without tongue in cheek -- that "we try not to be offensive."
Catching David Byrne's ear
Los Amigos Invisibles, childhood friends from a middle-class area of Caracas, got together well after Venezuela began descending into its current economic troubles. Looking back to his younger years, Pardo describes the 1970s as a period where excess was fueled by the sudden infusion of money from the country's oil industry. Along the way, he says, enthusiasm grew for foreign music, and Venezuelan styles were neglected. "Our cultural legacy has been totally damaged," he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times, and "it's all our fault."
That cultural neglect, however, played a fortuitous part in the band's development. Because of the lack of interest, old Venezuelan records became available by the crateful, and the band members snapped them up to revisit the native sounds of their childhood. By that point, they had already absorbed foreign music, so it was inevitable that they should become a kind of two-way cultural mirror. Even now, they continue to soak up new influences.
Perhaps it was this aspect of their music that caught the attention of David Byrne. When Los Amigos first visited New York City in 1995 with their EMI Venezuela debut album (still unreleased in the States), they left a few copies at a chain store with the manager, a fellow Venezuelan. The story goes that the copyright date was misprinted as "1985," so when Byrne found the album, he wondered why, after so many years, he hadn't heard of them. When he called the number listed on the CD, Los Amigos thought it was a Byrne-obsessed friend playing a prank. Pardo says they hung up about three times before Byrne was able to convince them it was really him.
All three of Los Amigos' subsequent albums were released by Byrne's label, Luaka Bop. The latest, Zinga, languished for three years before release due to Luaka Bop's search for new distribution, but Pardo says he doesn't regret sticking by the label.
"If we like it, we'll do it"
Different forms of music can, in many regards, be looked at as cultures unto themselves. The lines may not be drawn along ethnic or national boundaries, but the delineations are often just as rigid. Pardo acknowledges that respect is in order when a band explores a style it's not familiar with, but also believes musicians must feel free to explore, and that a musician's growth goes hand-in-hand with discovery.
"Sometimes, for example, rock musicians will forbid themselves to play jazz," he says. "If we like it, we'll do it. It's like learning. Some people will say, 'You're trying to claim that you're, let's say, a soul man because you're playing a soul song,' and we're like, 'Man, we're [just] having fun learning how to play this shit."
He also says that Los Amigos show respect by trying to master different styles as best they can. And indeed, their studious musical execution makes for a strange contrast with the band's goofy, sex-crazed attitude. Whatever they're doing, it's working. Even with the wait to release Zinga, the band has been able to support itself by touring the United States and Europe from their none-too-affordable home base, New York City.
Wherever they roam, and however much they may whip audiences into a debauched frenzy, Los Amigos don't necessarily feel removed from happenings in their homeland. This past year, Venezuela made headlines for, among other things, the kidnapping of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina's mother, who is still missing. Police say her kidnappers are asking for $3 million to release her. In recent years, such ransom-driven abductions have reportedly grown at an alarming rate in Venezuela, where the extravagant salaries of professional baseball players make their families prime targets for kidnapping.
With all the international press they receive, do Los Amigos fear for the well-being of their families?
"No," Pardo answers. "We're not rich."
More Amigos in Asheville
In an exciting local twist, Los Amigos Invisibles are involved in local (American, Venezuelan-born) filmmaker Chusy Jardine's Asheville: The Movie, a film of interwoven short stories that will be shot entirely on location in Asheville. The band will score some of the soundtrack, and Amigos vocalist Julio Briceno is slated to star in one of the stories. See www.ashevillethemovie.com for the total lowdown.
[Freelance music writer Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is based in Rochester, NY.]
Los Amigos Invisibles plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Thursday, Feb. 17, with La Rua. 9 p.m. $12 ($10/advance).