When Grupo Niche burst on to the music scene in 1980, the people of Cali discovered a new sound that changed the way salsa was performed and danced, by incorporating in the brass, a brilliance that other ensembles couldn’t match. In live presentations, saleros moved and swirled with a jazzed-up air, not even caleños knew existed.
The brainchild of Grupo Niche was Jairo Varela (1949 – 2012), born in Quibdó, capital of Chocó. The son of an educator-turned-writer, Teresa Martínez de Varela, and an estranged father, Jairo discovered a love of words and music at an early age. By nine, he composed his first songs for a traditional folk group called La Timba. “He was very much a poet at heart,” states Cristina Varela, 27, and youngest of the musical legend’s four daughters. “Words came naturally to him.”
As an acute observer of life growing up in one of Colombia’s racially diverse towns, where being black is a source of pride, the affirmative term “niche” (slang for Afro Colombian) worked its way into Varela’s lexicon. When the band was created in 1978, Varela and musical associate Alexis Lozano decided on Grupo Niche as a fitting tribute to describe a sound that would go on to revolutionize the unsung world of salsa.
For scholars of the Cali sound, Varela is widely considered a musical genius. Mostly self-taught, the musician reached the pinnacle of success, a recognition many at the heart of this country’s rapidly expanding music scene, could only imagine. In his prolific compositions, Varela crystallized popular cultural expressions, those of the barrio, giving voice to the working class, and writing hymns to romance and passion.
Varela composed everyday until his death by heart failure in 2012, at age 62. “When he wasn’t writing music, he loved to watch sports, and would read the dictionary cover to cover,” recalls Cristina, gathered with three of the four lead vocalists, including the group’s recently appointed musical director, Javier Aguirre. The venue is the Museo Jairo Varela, a breezy museum in the heart of Cali, overlooking the square named after the musician and adorned with a giant trumpet-shaped monument, which relentlessly plays Varela’s most recognizable song: “Cali pachanguero.”
In Cali, salsa is held to a higher standard than any other musical style. It is revered as a native sound, as grass roots, as much as the cane fields that hem in this tropical city caressed by Pacific winds. For Varela, salsa was more than a string of chart-topping hits interpreted by four men on stage in dashing shoes and tailored suits. It had to be the sound of “the people” – his people – men from the Pacific coast with exceptional voices. Breaking with the salsa convention of having one or maybe two vocalists in a song, Varela’s ideal was four. This doubling of tonality marked Grupo Niche as a layered ensemble with a richly tinted sound. One of Varela’s songs “Mi pueblo natal” (My Birthplace) is the unofficial anthem of the Chocó, eulogizing the beauty of the landscape, and a yearning for a homecoming.
During the 1970s, Cali’s predominantly European social fabric was transformed when migrant workers from the Pacific arrived in Valle del Cauca to harvest the sugarcane plantations. With this movement of displaced ambition and promise for a better future, salsa took root in small towns, namely Juanchito, touching the banks of the Río Cauca, which is also a physical divide between an affluent industrializing city and the thatched huts of the rural dispossessed.
Varela united the social divide with songs now etched deep in the Colombian consciousness. The release of ‘Al pasito’ in 1979, launched Varela as a musical ambassador of Colombian salsa, identifiable for its rhythmic percussions and positive social message. With the acclaim of Varela’s first album, the internationalization of Colombian salsa had begun, and Grupo Niche born. Other big band orchestras followed suit, and Cali danced. A golden age of salsa had dawned, but only one maestro could baptize an entire city with a song – “Cali pachanguero.” And that, of course, was Varela.
A string of hit songs catapulted Grupo Niche to the world stage during the 1980s. Varela was intensely zealous of his sound and “a perfectionist in the studio,” recalls Aguirre, Varela’s closest non-family confidant, and an award-winning composer in his own right. As the band’s musical patrimony began to accumulate, Grupo Niche toured extensively, covering every major Latin American capital. In 1986, the band incorporated Puerto Rican vocalist Tito Gómez, who performed with the famous Puerto Rican salsa group Sonora Ponceña, and Ray Barretto, a pioneer of Latin Jazz. One of Grupo Niche’s most immortalizing moments was a 1989 concert to a full house in Madison Square Garden, New York.
Varela took his children on the road as much as he could. When not performing his trumpet or mulling over musical scores in a hotel room, he was very much a dedicated father to his five children from five different wives. “He was a very responsible man,” laughs Cristina, who, along with her elder siblings, runs different aspects of the group’s operations. “What I have achieved can last another 30 years,” recalls Cristina of her father’s words, knowing that his heart condition would worsen. “It all depends on you, how much more you want this all to last.”
Varela was an obsessive composer, often reaching back in time to melodies that accompanied him in his childhood. When Varela died, many doubted the future of the band that could dash fans to the dance floor with refrains such as “Que todo el mundo te canta” or “Una aventura.” Varela even wrote a song that tributes an innocuous landmark, the bridge spanning the Cauca River, that for decades united black and white, rich and poor – “Del puente pa’llá”.
In the mid 1990s, Grupo Niche could count themselves among the very best salsa groups in the world. But, the story of a city that they rewrote in music began a seismic transformation with the rise of the Cali Cartel. Run by brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orjuela, the crime syndicate laundered billions of U.S dollars through the many companies they owned (including a pharmacy and the main football club), and invested aggressively in real estate. With drug money nancing an unprecedented economic bonanza, this ‘white collar’ ma a also spent lavishly on parties. The best musical groups were coveted for piñatas, first communions, weddings. Salsa’s gilded image became tarnished by the cartel’s excessive lifestyle, and traditional salsa haunts, such as Juanchito, were off limits to those who didn’t have armed bodyguards.
The year 1995 marked a low point in the life of Varela, a composer branded as the soul of salsa. On 8 December, after returning from a tour stateside, he was arrested at Cali’s international airport for allegedly receiving illegal funds from the cartel for performing at a private party. Varela denied all charges, but was sentenced to serve one year in a low security prison near Cali. From prison he kept composing, while his wives and children put the company’s financial house in order. Varela’s eldest daughter, Yanila, assumed the global management of the band, and when he regained his freedom in 1996, the five families were more united than ever. “We realized that we had to set aside our personal differences,” recalls Cristina. “It wasn’t about my father, but the music. The continuation of a dream to compose salsa for Colombia.”
Varela’s death immortalized him as an architect of this nation’s rich musical history. In 2015, Grupo Niche celebrated 35-years as a group, and despite ebbs and flows, has launched the successful careers of many vocalists and band members. “Jairo wanted the group to be the protagonist, not an individual singer or musician,” states Aguirre, who last year led the band to their first Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Album. This year, the musical director headed into the studio to release Pánico, a song written by Varela that hadn’t seen the light of day. The single is making a splash on the airwaves for its pure, crisp salsa beat.
“People are grateful that we are still around,” states Cristina, as the band embraces a bold future in the hands of Aguirre, and preserves the traditional instruments that defined their sound three decades ago. For Elvis Magno, one of four vocalists, the opportunity to be part of this band is much more transformative than leading a performance in stadium filled venues. “This is a dream that sets an example to so many. The songs of our maestro are songs of life,” says Elvis. “We are one people, united by music.”