Jairo Varela, 62, founder of the Colombian salsa group Grupo Niche, died from heart failure in Cali, Colombia.
His heart has stopped, but his music will live on forever.
His grandfather put a guitar in his hands at age eight—Jairo Varela would forever intone it to spread Colombian folklore and salsa to the rest of the world.
The rhythmic beats and African influences were crystal clear in the music he delivered. Varela, the Grupo Niche founder who died Wednesday in Cali, Colombia, struck it internationally in 1984 with “No hay quintomalo,” the highly-acclaimed album which netted “Cali Pachanguero,” a “city anthem” that not only embodied his love for where he was from, but paved his way to stardom.
Jairo Varela’s legacy to Colombian salsa
Founded in 1978 by Varela, Grupo Niche was not only the measuring stick of Colombian salsa bands, but exemplary of the “Cali” sound.
It was Varela who created a distinct salsa sound thanks to his poignant lyrics, blaring trumpets and upbeat tempo that made its way through carnivals, romances under the moon and social consciousness.
Born in Quibdo, the capital of Choco, his “Pachanguero” and “Una Aventura” remain staples in clubs around the world and radio stations everywhere.
A large band with a piercing sound fixated on African rhythms, Varela, was already in Bogota with trombonist Alexis Lozano. Grupo Niche would make its initial mark with “Buenaventura y Caney,” an emotive and driving homage to the coastal city of Buenaventura, on “Quarter Es Poder,” the band’s second album.
Unique as a bandleader because he didn’t sing or play an instrument, Varela composed and arranged, preserving the signature Grupo Niche sound through a series of stellar lead singers that included Alvaro del Castillo, Tito Gómez, Charlie Cardona, Willy García and Javier Vasquez. Vasquez later founded Son de Cali.
Grupo Niche reaches international audience
Jairo Varela directed Grupo Niche with tightness, elevating the quality of salsa. Grupo Niche toured the world over, playing Madison Square Garden 17 times and performing over 2,000 shows in the U.S., according to Varela.
At the height of Grupo Niche’s popularity in the early 1990s, Varela opened a state of the art studio and nightclub in Cali and was arrested for illicit enrichment, accused of having received money for performing private parties for accused drug traffickers, a charge Varela denied.
He would spend nearly three years in a low-security prison, from where he continued to write, and emerged to a hero’s welcome in Cali and the relaunch of his musical career. Varela spent several years living in Miami before returning to Cali, where he was actively working with Grupo Niche, which continues to tour worldwide. Last May, the band played a concert celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Jairo Varela is survived by his partner, Damaris Dediego, and five children.