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In polite Colombian society, well-meaning mothers tell their children in hushed tones: "Don't say negro, my dear; say moreno." One word means black. The other means dark. Jairo Varela, leader of Grupo Niche, Colombia's most successful salsa orchestra, has no patience for such fine distinctions. After spending three years in prison on drug-trafficking charges he believes were racially motivated, Varela insists on calling a spade a spade.
"The racism in Colombia is clear," says the 49-year-old band leader from his office in Cali. "This has created an additional level of difficulty for our etnia," our ethnic group, "because we are black and because we are poor."
With seven gold and four platinum records under his belt since forming Grupo Niche twenty years ago, Varela has come a long way from the poverty of his native Quibdó, a tiny village on the Pacific coast in the department of Chocó. At the time of his arrest in 1995, the musician owned a modeling agency, a two-million-dollar discotheque in Cali, and a $250,000, 48-track, state-of-the-art recording console. He also invested generously in the campaigns of aspiring Afro-Colombian politicians, a move Varela thinks did not go unnoticed by the nation's power elite. He is convinced that his wealth and influence got him into trouble with the law in a country he believes is not ready to accept a successful black man.
Race is particularly complicated in Colombia, where geographical and cultural regionalism have separated the sangre, those with African blood, from one another as well as from the rest of the nation. Chocó is one of many far-flung territories where the Spanish plantation system scattered African peoples. Limited contact among the black people of Chocó, the Caribbean islands, the Atlantic coast, and the inland city of Cali led to the development of distinct forms of neo-African expression in each region. What being black means -- and what it sounds like -- often depends on where you live.
Racism, the brutal common denominator of the black experience, unites otherwise very different Afro-Colombian communities. Paradoxically racism also aggravates the intense regionalism that characterizes Colombian culture in general. While Colombians of all races tend to identify by region first and foremost -- as Paisas (from Medellín), Caleños (from Cali), or Costeños (from the coast), Afro-Colombians are especially likely to put hometown before nation. The songs Varela has written for Grupo Niche include praise for Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla, but not a single tune celebrates Colombia as a whole.
When asked about the Colombian roots of Grupo Niche's salsa sound, Varela answers adamantly: "There is no Colombian influence in my music. The influence is African." Varela does not mean the influence comes directly from the continent of Africa, however. He explains, "The melodies and the rhythms come from the African people where I grew up on the Pacific coast."
From the time he was eight until he was twelve years old, Varela played with a band of village children called La Timba. The youngsters raised funds for their pastimes by performing African-based folk music on bongos, maracas, and guiros during feast days for the saints. The children learned music from the adults around them. Varela recalls, "My town was so small all you had to do was open your eyes to see what everyone else there was doing."
In addition to the local folk music that played an important role in village life, recordings from Cuba made their way to Chocó. Varela tells how the traditional Cuban son sounded familiar: "We heard more of ourselves in groups like Sonora Matancera than we did in the Colombian groups that were coming from the other coast or from the interior." Across thousands of miles and hundreds of years of separation, Varela heard in the Cuban music the same African roots that inspired him in Quibdó.
The village burned down in 1966, sending the then-seventeen-year-old aspiring musician to Bogotá to continue his studies. At that time little of the neo-African music playing along the coasts and in Cali could be heard in the nation's capital. Varela kept playing, though, and in 1980 formed Grupo Niche, taking for his band's name a term that in Colombia describes the very darkest of black-skinned people.
"We didn't have much of an echo in Bogotá," remembers Varela, telling why the band moved in 1983 to Cali. "In Cali we had the total support of the people." A city with a considerable Afro-Colombian population, Cali began to import salsa with a passion in the late 1960s, and developed a distinctive style of dance that often required speeding up salsa records from 45 rpm to 78 rpm. By the time Grupo Niche arrived two decades later, Caleños were eager for a band that could play music to match their frantic dance style. "There was such an integration between Cali and Grupo Niche," observes Varela, "that we developed hand in hand."
In Cali Niche found a new singer, Tito Gomez, who helped break the group into the international market. The band brought their Colombian sound to the World Festival of Salsa at Madison Square Garden in 1986. Since then Grupo Niche has launched a number of solo singers and become a staple of salsa clubs and festivals. The group has toured the United States more than 100 times and played more than 1700 shows worldwide. But success has had its aesthetic downside: Niche's brand of salsa consequently settled into a rather predictable format that emphasizes the treble with the high end of the piano and a whole lot of horn. Rapid montunos satisfy the Caleño taste for fast footwork, but Varela's consistently neat arrangements aim to please an international audience that knows what it wants and wants to hear it again and again.