JULY 11, 2012

North Of The Border: Dispatches From The Montreal International Jazz Festival

Part 3: Los Amigos Invisibles

Last week Nat Geo Music sent correspondent Ron Deutsch to cover the 33rd edition of the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. This week he's filing his dispatches from the festival - a series of interviews with some of the international artists who graced the event's many stages. Today he checks in with Venezuelan dance rockers Los Amigos Invisibles.

Longevity. For two people to sustain a relationship of any length of time is generally regarded as one of life's great challenges. Most musicals acts, even those who are successful, are lucky to survive more than a few years as egos or conflicting creative directions split them apart. For six people to form such a union, struggle and succeed together, and continue to generate fresh new music for 20 years is nothing short of miraculous.

2011 marked the 20th Anniversary of Los Amigos Invisibles and they're showing no signs of marital strain. We spoke with two of the band members before their concert on the first evening of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal to try and uncover the secret of their longevity.

"I have to say I started to realize we were 20 when our manager and the people around us started saying it to us. '20 years? Really?' It's the longest relationship I've ever been with other than my parents," said José Luis Pardo (aka "Cheo" aka "DJ Afro"), guitarist and primary songwriter for Los Amigos Invisibles. "It's crazy! It's a miracle!"

Los Amigos Invisibles formed in 1991 playing gigs around Caracas, Venezuela. Their idea was to buck the punk rock trend of the time and just play some "get down" party music. Their infectious blend of disco, salsa, funk, and electronic music found an audience at home and, with youthful daring, they decided to move to New York and try their luck in finding an international audience. Now a legendary tale, a friend who worked in a record store in the city slipped a couple of copies of their first CD in the stacks. The CD was then "discovered" by Talking Heads singer David Byrne who quickly signed them to his Luaka Bop label. Their 2001 release, Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey into Space, not only helped gain the band an audience larger than they had even dreamed of, but also Grammy nomination. Since then, they've gone on to receive two more Grammy nominations, three Latin Grammy nominations, and won a Latin Grammy in 2009 for their album Non-Commercial.

For all those years, the band lived together in New York City, but recently they've separated geographically. They credit the diaspora as one of the keys to sustaining their relationship, and more importantly, perhaps, to their ongoing creative growth.

"One of the most important things that happened with all this moving is that everyone is living now where we think we're happy," said bassist José Rafael Torres (aka "Catire"), one of the band members who's returned to Venezuela. "I mean we moved from Caracas to New York to make a career, but 80 years later now," he joked, "we do New York three times a year. We don't need to live there. We're on an independent label. So one of us started saying, 'I never liked this f**kin' weather'. And everyone started reaching deep inside."

"We opened a door and like everyone can live in a place they like," explained Pardo who remained in the Big Apple. Some band members also relocated to Mexico City.

"I think that keeps everybody happy because you are where you need to be," Torres said.

"Or at least the band doesn't have any guilt of we're forcing you to be in a city for work," added Pardo. "We tour so much over the course of a year, when we go home we get to have something like a 'simulation' of normal life. So every one tries to have a normal life, a wife, friends who go 9 to 5 to work, and that way we have some stability mind-wise. Curiously, since we moved out in different directions and different cities, the band hangs out more when we're on tour. We go out and have drinks, and it's fun."

Working on the new, as yet untitled, album, the group have been communicating and sharing ideas via the Internet when not together on tour.

"It's been really interesting that when we have a chance to get into a studio in a city we're in all together, we do it. But also it's been great in the decision making because when you have only four hours to do something, you go straight to the point," Pardo explained. "We don't have like a month to spend in the studio working, because we all got our own homes. So, in that way, the album has that edge of making something happen in a limited amount of time which is I think is going to work out great. We have less time to get it together.... Funny enough, the album is our first we'll do living in separate cities, and curiously, it's the album that has more songs."

The group "suffered" similarly to a lesser extent with their 2009 release Commercial. They had so many songs written and recorded they released a second album in 2011, Non-Commercial, made up of those they felt were - as per the title - less commercial-oriented than the tracks on Commercial.

"The two ideas complemented themselves," Pardo said. "It became like a portrait of what the band was doing at that time. I love that some people loved [Commercial], and some people liked [the other]. I think it gave a true 360 picture of what the band was thinking about in that moment. And we're seriously thinking of doing the same thing [with the new material] - like doing the first album with some kind of perspective and then doing the rest."

But while in some way it's become easier making a new album having been together for so long, challenges do remain and some can become even greater.

"Sometimes when you have so much material and you've been writing for so long, it's actually harder to write," said Pardo, "because you think you've done everything and you don't want to repeat yourself that obviously. Of course, you are the same person and your songs are going have something in common. So in that way it's kind of harder when you're doing a lot of stuff.

"But the method of doing stuff has definitely improved over the year and also I think we're more relaxed now. I mean, we've never had any stress of being on the radio, we've never had any stress of being in the mainstream for most of the countries we play in, so we just do what we like.... So, in that way, we don't have that pressure or a huge chain of people giving opinions. Almost everyone now is stepping into their forties - we have a life, we have an operation to maintain, [and] we don't hate money. We're not going to do a long two-hour album without any pop songs on it, but we still have our ethic of doing what we like."

While calling a song "pop" can throw some musicians and music fans into fits and spasms, Pardo said Los Amigos Invisibles doesn't fear such labels.

"I think it has to do with being honest with yourself. We like Pink Floyd, we love The Cure, but I love some of the songs the Spice Girls did, you know," he admitted. "They're well done. Or Robbie Williams. It's great. Well done. Like what's not to like about it? The only thing not to like about it is that a lot of people listen to it. So it's not fair with that attitude. In that matter, we are honest in appreciating any pop music - because every music has its context and every music has its value. As long as it's a good song, we try to embrace it."

But speaking of labels, being that Los Amigos Invisibles have been around so long, have name recognition, and are dependable to deliver energetic live performances, they regularly get invited to play many of the big music festivals. However, they often find themselves either billed as "the Latino band" (along with a small but growing handful of bands, including Grupo Fantasma and Café Tacuba) or relegated to the "Latin" or "World music" stages.

"We love that a lot of the U.S. festivals are paying a lot of support to Latin acts," said Pardo, "and we're strongly getting a benefit of that... But at some point when you're so segregated some of the people will never pass by that stage, because 'Oh, it's all Latin.' So the best festival experiences we've had is when nobody tells where we are from."

"I think it's getting there," he said of the future disappearance of such labels. "Sometimes we've been in places like Australia and since their mainstream is like from all over the world, they don't really qualify bands with tags like Arabian or Iraqi or British - they're just bands. And that's awesome. But I think it's going there [internationally], taken from a lot of the kids that I know listening to music. Most of them don't know where the bands are from and I think it is a positive thing."

The audience in Montreal certainly knew where the band was coming from, whether or not caring where they were from, given the number of people dancing wildly in the room.

Also making the festival rounds - though in this case the film festival rounds - is a documentary film about Los Amigos Invisibles, La Casa del Ritmo. The filmmakers approached the band a couple of years ago with the idea and then went out and raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter from just under 600 of the band's fans to get the film financed.

"In the beginning," said Torres, "I must confess, I had kind of mixed feelings because, I felt 'We have to go and ask for money to make a movie? I mean after 20 years there should be enough money to do it.' But on the other hand, that 600 people came in with money to support this film, to me it was something very exciting and special."

Pardo, in addition to his DJ Afro remixes, is also working on a new side project, Los Crema Paraiso (The Paradise Cream) (http://www.myspace.com/loscremaparaiso) which is described as bringing "Venezuelan traditional music into jazz, rock, funk, latin grooves, electronica and exotic sounds from all over the world."

Los Amigos Invisibles are currently touring North America this summer.

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