Jairo Varela, the iconic founder and leader of celebrated Colombian salsa band Grupo Niche, died suddenly of apparent heart failure in his home in Cali, Colombia. He was 62 years old.
Varela created a signature salsa sound characterized by its fast tempos, aggressive trumpets and well crafted lyrics that navigated from feel-good partying to romance and social consciousness. To this day, tracks like Grupo Niche’s hit “Cali Pachanguero” and “Una Aventura” are forever associated with Colombian salsa and play in virtually every tropical radio station and club in the world.
Born in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, a predominantly Afrio-Colombian state in the Pacific Coast, Varela grew up surrounded by music but only began to earnestly pursue it as a career when he moved to Bogotá and began writing his own compositions. In 1978, Varela created Niche, a large salsa band with a big, aggressive sound founded on African rhythms, together with trombonist Alexis Lozano (who would later leave to launch his own band, Guayacán). Niche broke out with its second album, Querer Es Poder on indie label Codiscos, which included the single “Buenaventura y Caney,” an homage to the coastal city of Buenaventura.
Niche’s popularity was consolidated with 1984’s No Hay Quinto Malo, which included the hit “Cali Pachanguero,” an homage to Cali, the city best known in Colombia for its salsa music and the place Varela called home for most of his adult life.
As a bandleader, Varela was an anomaly because he didn’t sing or play an instrument. Instead, he 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 and Willy García and Javier Vasquez, who later created another group, Son de Cali.
Beyond the music, Varela ran his band with military precision, raising the standards for tropical music and even fining bandmembers for arriving late to practice. Grupo Niche toured the world to a degree previously unheard of for Colombian salsa band, playing Madison Square Garden 17 times and performing over 2,000 shows in the U.S., according to Varela.
At the height of Niche’s popularity in the early 1990s, Varela opened a state of the art studio and nightclub in Cali and was arrested for elicit 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.
Varela is survived by his partner, Damaris Dediego, and five children.