Call Me Negro

Grupo Niche says it loud and proud with salsa

Although Varela's compositions continue to reference the African traditions of Chocó and other regions of Colombia, racial consciousness remained a muted concern in Grupo Niche's music until Varela's arrest. Finding himself, despite his fame and fortune, at the mercy of the same forces that lead to the disproportionate incarceration of black men across the globe, Varela's lyrics began to make more pointed statements about race.

"What happened to me doesn't have a name," Varela observes bitterly. He was convicted in 1995 of illicit enrichment, conspiracy, and money laundering. The charges centered on 48 million pesos ($27,000) Grupo Niche received from Cali cartel boss Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela as payment for a concert appearance. The band leader was released from jail a year later, after demonstrating that the court failed to consider royalties he received for his recordings from Sony Internacional when accounting for his income. Prosecutors appealed the ruling, however, returning Varela to prison at the end of 1997. He served two additional years in a casa especial, a special facility for distinguished convicts, before being released under the condition that he remain inside Colombia.

"They told me we made bad money," Varela protests, "but they didn't say anything to white artists who played on the same payroll. [Venezuelan salsero] Oscar D'Leon and [Puerto Rican salseros] El Gran Combo played there. So did Colombian acts, like [vallenato singer] Carlos Vives. There was no equality."

Not in the picture: Grupo Niche tours the world without celebrated bandleader Jairo Varela
Not in the picture: Grupo Niche tours the world without celebrated bandleader Jairo Varela


Grupo Niche also will play at the Calle Ocho Festival on Sunday, March 12. Admission is free. Call 305-644-8888 for details.
Performs with Tito Nieves at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, March 11, at the Rumba Room in the Hotel Four Ambassador, 801 Brickell Bay Dr. Tickets cost $30 in advance and $35 at the door; 305-372-9599.

Grupo Niche continued to tour extensively without Varela and released two albums under his remote direction. For A Prueba de Fuego (Trial by Fire, 1997), the jailed leader approved the band's interpretation of his new compositions by cell phone. In the casa especial, the authorities allowed Varela to install a computer on which he composed, arranged, and played back the material for Señales de Humo (Smoke Signals, 1998).

"Maybe the quality of these projects suffered," Varela admits, "but the sacrifice and dedication it took to keep going more than makes that up for me."

A Golpe de Folklore (With the Force of Folklore, 1999) is Grupo Niche's first release since Varela left jail in October of last year. Free from prison Varela also has extricated himself from Sony. Varela cut the disk on his own label, PPM, Professional Music Producers. His eldest daughter, Yanila Muñiz, runs the U.S. office of PPM out of a small warehouse in the Doral district of Miami. Whatever the source of Varela's income, the production value of A Golpe de Folklore suggests PPM has more than enough money to generate high-quality recordings and manage an extensive distribution network. The strong name recognition of Grupo Niche makes it seem likely Varela's label will succeed where smaller, garage startups fail. The first single, "Han Cogido la Cosa" ("They've Taken Up That Thing"), protests the common use of racial slurs to make jokes. The song repeats a number of traditional racist jabs, only to reverse them in the end. The chorus demonstrates the kind of unequal treatment Varela believes has victimized him: "Black man running is a thief/White man running is an athlete." During the improvised soneo, singer Willy Garcia suggests another way to see the black man. "Let's do the real accounting," he sings. "I am a black man. I am a salsero. My drum plays the message."

The rage behind the humor in "Han Cogido la Cosa" is palpable. The arrangements, however, are as polite as ever in Niche hits. Despite centuries of oppression, each instrument patiently awaits its turn. No matter how ugly the world may be, there are no messy descargas here. The orderly instrumentation might be a way of keeping a cap on the rage, a way of holding back what threatens to explode. As if following the hypocritical mores of Colombian society, the song's most pointed chorus fails to be heard on the recording at all: "Don't call me moreno," read the liner notes, "call me negro."

Music guru and "Kulchur" columnist Brett Sokol is moving up to a full-time writing wrole with Miami New Times, and that means we need a new music editor. We're looking for someone with strong opinions and sharp editing skills who can plan and manage a weekly music section, write long-form feature stories, and polish the copy of staff and freelance writers. An editing test is part of the interview process. Serious applicants should send a résumé, cover letter, and writing samples to:

Anne Tschida, associate editor,
Miami New Times
P.O. Box 011591
Miami, FL 33101-1591

e-mail submissions:
No phone calls, please.

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