Bandleader and composer Jairo Varela built his big salsa band, Grupo Niche, to become the best-known Colombian salsa group in history, thanks to a repertoire of hit songs that celebrated the culture of his adopted city, Cali, and a distinctive, brassy, bold sound anchored in musical excellence.
Cali, long celebrated by dance aficionados as the “capital of salsa” for its love of the music from all origins, became a cradle of the genre thanks to Niche and its songs. But it would take 40 years for Grupo Niche to get its ultimate due. On Sunday night, the 14-man troupe won the Grammy for best tropical Latin album for 40, becoming the first Colombian salsa act in history to win a Grammy.
The feat is particularly meaningful today considering Varela was a musician from the predominantly Black state of Chocó (his cousin is Goyo, of ChocQuibTown) who actually named his group Niche because it’s a term that’s slang for Black.
Varela, a veritable force of nature who was as famous as his group, died eight years ago. This is the group’s first album ever that doesn’t include some version of his hit songs. The set’s success, as well as the group’s enduring longevity, is a testament to the work done by Varela’s children — mainly eldest daughter Yanila Varela, who’s been heading the estate since his death — and arranger and composer José Aguirre, Niche’s former musical director and Varela protégé, who took over as head of the group after his mentor’s death.
“Niche is a group that all of us salseros love. It’s been the brightest light that shines over Colombian salsa,” says Aguirre. “Doing an album without Jairo’s songs was a huge challenge.”
But after multiple compilation albums, fans were demanding new music. “It was complex,” says Yanila Varela. “First taking the step of recording new material without my father. Because being at the level of my dad is a monumental task. But José is a professional.”
When Yanila first broached the notion of an album with Aguirre, she mentioned that her father, in his last months alive, had wanted to open up a studio in Miami to record in analog format. “And José said that was exactly how he envisioned this album. I felt like I was speaking with my dad.”
Aguirre, who spent a decade with Niche and left the group in 2002, returned after Varela’s children called him after their dad’s death. “The word is ‘respect,’” he says. “Every second of everything I did — arrangements, production — I was thinking of Jairo. How he reacted when he liked something and when he didn’t. I wrote with Jairo inside my head, and I applied all the foundations of Grupo Niche. This wasn’t about me; this was about Niche.”
Varela, and by extension Niche, defined Colombian salsa with a hard-hitting sound, eloquent lyrics and Black heritage pride. Songs like “Cali Pachanguero,” “Gotas de Lluvia” and “Una Aventura” are beloved salsa classics that have become part of the standard repertoire not only for the genre, but for Latin music overall.
Varela was also a larger-than-life figure, known for his exacting professional standards, who built one of the first state-of-the-art recording studios in Cali. Musicians in the group were fined if they were late or their uniforms not pressed correctly. After Varela’s death in 2012 at 62 years old, Cali built a museum in his name, and, buoyed by an increasing interest in salsa and salsa tourism to Cali, Niche’s vast catalog remained popular and performed around the world by the group.
But it was also a bit of a logistical and legal nightmare. Catalog and master recordings were spread out over different labels and publishers, and in Mexico, multiple Grupo Niche impostor groups began popping up and playing gigs.
The bulk of sorting out Varela’s legacy and business fell on Yanila, who long worked alongside her dad but wasn’t a musician. She spent years sorting out legal entanglements, signed a distribution deal with OneRPM, and recruited her siblings to work alongside her. Today, her brother travels with the group as a production manager; one sister heads the museum, another helps with management and another, a photographer, is in charge of all art. A cousin, Rommel Caycedo, does PR for the group inside Colombia.
“It’s been exhausting,” Varela admits. “These eight years feel like 20. But I’m much calmer now. My siblings are all involved, our team and our musicians are excellent, and here are the results. We couldn’t set my dad’s dream aside. He always said: ‘If I’m ever absent, you all have to continue this.’”
Another of Jairo Varela’s dreams, says his daughter, was getting proper recognition for Black musicians, especially in Colombia.
“He always wanted Black musicians to get the recognition and value they deserved,” she says. “He left an unfinished dream of creating an Afro television channel to show the world his culture and ethnicity. We can’t fulfill his dream of a TV cannel, but with Grupo Niche, we’re honored to see that through his music and lyrics we can get Afro-Colombian culture the empathy and recognition it deserves.”