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07/14/01

Distinctive salsa band based in Cali, Colombia. Leader, musical director, arranger and producer, Jairo Varela.

Profile by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)

Grupo Niche

Leader, musical director, arranger and producer Jairo Varela (b 9 Dec. '49, Quibdó, Chocó, Colombia) also shares lead vocals, sings in chorus, plays güiro (scraper) and writes the songs. Deejay Tomek encapsulated his stature in one sentence: "Niche is Jairo Varela, a man whose work is so original and brilliant that even his errors of judgment are intriguing." He shared arrengement chores with Alexis Lozano early '80s, then band's sole trombonist; later albums almost entirely arranged by Varela (being musically untutored, his dazzling concepts are transcribed by others). "Jairo Varela really has no music or writing skills. However, as evidenced by his success, he does have a cunning nose for what works for his band," comments Bogotá-based Puerto Rican keyboardist Israel Tanenbaum, who worked as a prod., engineer and pianist for Varela's now defunct Niche Disco label and co-prod. and co-arr. seven albums by the Niche spin-off band Orquesta Guayacán between '87 and '97.

The band's mid-'80s lineup incl. pairs of trumpets, trombones, sax/flute, tres, piano, bass, timbales, conga, bongo, güiro, maracas, two lead singers and three-strong chorus; Varela dropped sax/ flute '87 and tres '88; often added third 'bone and trumpet '88-00. Their matchless and exciting brand of salsa sometimes incl. infl. of soca on their pleasingly under-produced early LPs, giving them the feel of live performance; from the late '80s the various manifestations of Niche became increasingly sophisticated.

Niche's LPs incl. debut Al Pasito '79 on Discos Daro. The follow-up Querer Es Poder '81 on Codiscos featured a trio of lead singers: Alvaro del Castillo, Omer "Tuto" Jiménez and Alexis's cousin La Coco Lozano. Tuto and La Coco departed. Oscar Alberto Abueta came in to share lead vocals with del Castillo on Preparate Grupo Niche Vol. 2 '82 on Codiscos; then left and relocated to Miami for a while; his most notable work there was on Hernán Gutiérrez's modern classic Con Sacrificio '84 on Martínez Records, also featuring lead vocals from Panamanian Gabino Pampini and Cuban Israel "Kantor" Sardiñas (ex-Los Van Van).

Tuto returned to replace Abueta on '83's Niche on Niche Records (aka Directo Desde New York on Codiscos), made in NYC. After Niche , Alexis Lozano split, forming Orquesta Guayacán in Bogotá with singer Ricardo "Richie" Valdés. Tuto departed again, later appearing on the '87 and '88 releases by La Cali Charanga on Codiscos/ Sonotone. Del Castillo left to record a string of LPs with his own band, incl. Al Puerto , Llegamos! , Bueno Y Más! , Que Se Aguante El Mundo and Alvaro del Castillo '85-92. "The greatest hit of that era, "Buenaventura y Caney" (from Querer Es Poder '81), sung by Alvaro del Castillo, became a classic in Colombia," remarks Tanenbaum. "Alexis Lozano brought me in to work on an album for Alvaro released in 1989 by FM Discos in Colombia. Alexis and I also produced an album for Tuto Jiménez released by FM Discos in about 1990/91."

Niche continued with No Hay Quinto Malo '84 on Codiscos (containing their anthem "Cali Pachanguero"), made in Colombia, regarded by some as their best, and Se Pasó! '85 on New York Latin Records (aka Triunfo on Codiscos) made in NYC. Moncho Santana, who sang lead vocals on the '84 and '85 albums, then departed to record with Grupo Star (Grupo Star de Colombia '87 on Combo, also featuring NYC salsa luminaries Johnny Rivera on lead vocals and Sergio George on piano) and Manuel Bravo's Orquesta Palenque (Salsa Felina '88 on Bravo! Records) before making a trio of solo albums on Combo: Aquí Estoy! , From Cali With Love and Sabor & Sentimiento '90-3. "Grupo Star was based in Medellín," recalls Tanenbaum. "It was owned by a guy called Aroldo Molina Molinares. He wanted to hire me as the band director when the previous one, Sergio George, quit after working with him for a year or so. However he never had an opportunity to make a formal offer. The day I flew in to Medellín for the meeting, I was received by him at an appliance store he owned and operated in town. He offered to send me to his house with his driver, so I could rest while he ran some errands, and said he would be home by seven in the evening. I said I would be glad to accompany him so we could speak along the way, and perhaps I could make the evening flight to Bogotá. But he insisted in expressing his hospitality, so I accepted. By midnight he had not shown up, and the place was pretty busy and everyone was on edge. At 6:00 a.m. I left for the airport not having met with Mr Molina. He and his driver were found dead in the car three weeks later, murdered by the Cartel on the day of our meeting."

Puerto Rican sonero Tito Gómez (he worked previously with Sonora Ponceña, La Terrifica, Ray Barretto, Tito Valentín, La Amistad, Rubby Haddock and as a solo artist - see the Descarga Journal Archives for a detailed discographic profile by John Child) joined Niche as co-lead singer on Me Huele A Matrimonio '86 on Zeida Codiscos in Colombia. Grupo Niche con Cuerdas ("with strings") '86 on Faisán, had more production and orchestration; it worked very well, incl. two new tracks and new versions (perhaps remixes) of songs from Matrimonio , done in Puerto Rico. Ex-Dimensión Latina mus. dir., arr. and trombonist César Monge "Albóndiga" was recruited to transcribe and perform on the highly recommended 2-disc album of remakes of earlier hits: Historia Musical '87 on Combo; after which most of the personnel walked-out on Varela (they alleged because of his financial meanness) to become Orquesta Internacional Los Niches, making their UK debut '88 with Santana providing lead vocals. "This is hearsay, but the story goes on to claim that Varela abandoned them at the hotel without paying the bill and they almost couldn't get out," adds Tanenbaum. Los Niches' albums incl. Tocando Madera , Salsa Por Siempre , Originalmente , Algo Diferente , Aniversario , Salsa De Hit and Grandes Exitos '88-96.

Gómez and Monge remained with the virtually new Niche on the customarily inventive Tapando El Hueco '88 on Clave/ Codiscos. The Miami recorded album featured veteran Cuban bassist Israel López "Cachao" and marked the recording debut of multi-talented Colombian Diego Galé with the band. After handling mus. dir. of Grupo Caneo's debut Ella '89 on Codiscos/ Sonotone, Galé organised his own band, Grupo Galé, whose releases incl. Frivolo (with Gabino Pampini guesting), Nuestra Salsa , Sensitivo , A Conciencia , Sin Apariencias , Afirmando , Dominando La Salsa , Grandes Hits , En Su Sitio , 10 Años and Con El Mismo Swing '89-00, all on Codiscos. In addition to sessioning extensively, Galé has acted as mus. dir. on various productions, incl. Heavy Salsa '98 on Fuentes (aka Al Son Los Cueros!!! on Fuentes/ Musica Latina) by La Sonora Carruseles, Quinto Mayor's Salsa Con Golpe '00 on Codiscos and La Son Charanga's Salsa Y Charanga '00 on Exclusivo, all highly recommended.

Prolific session musician Morist Jiménez, who played trombone on Niche's '88 album, performed all three 'bone parts and co-dir. with Varela on Sutil Y Contundente '89, their first on CBS (subsequently Sony). Gómez and newcomer Javier Vásquez provided lead vocals. Niche (feat. Jiménez and Gómez) made their UK debut Oct. '89; Gómez departed to resume his solo career, releasing Un Nuevo Horizonte , Agradecimiento , Recogiendo Frutos , Volver and Quién Lo Iba A Decir? '91-00, all on MP.

Guayacán founder member Richie Valdés joined Charlie Cardona (also making his debut) and Vásquez in the trio of lead vocalists on the magnificently wistful and orchestrally elegant Cielo De Tambores '90, made in Varela's own Niche Professional Studios in Cali. Varela delegated two charts to Sergio George, a great admirer of the band. Valdés left to pursue a solo career, leaving Vásquez and Cardona as co-lead singers on Llegando Al 100% '91, which saw the return of Alberto Barros (b 30 Nov. '57, Barranquilla, Colombia) on trombone; Barros performed and assisted with transcription chores on Niche's '85 and '86 LPs, he directed Los Titanes '82-93 (making his UK debut with them Dec. '90), directed Grupo Star's Grupo Star de Colombia '87 on Combo and Brindis de Amor '89 on Codiscos, has sessioned and arranged widely, and made his solo debut with El Titan de la Salsa '95 on RMM/ Sony. Live recordings of the Niche hits "Cali Aji" and "Sin Sentimientos" (originally from Cielo De Tambores '90) were incl. on the concert album 16th Salsa Festival Live From Madison Square Garden '91 on RMM/ Sony.

Niche celebrated its 12th anniversary with the 2-disc 12 Años '93 incl. a new tune and 15 redeveloped Varela classics, achieving the overall sense of an integral work, rather than the feel of a compilation. "This album was about two years in the making," recalls Tanenbaum. "I was producing in Jairo's studio at the time, for his label Niche Disco, which quickly disappeared. I recorded the piano on a couple of tunes. I never saw the album, so I don't know if my piano remains or not, or even if the cuts survived Jairo's unpredictable wrath. He once enabled the record buttons on all the tracks of a completely finished song and erased it because it wasn't "exactly" what he wanted! They say madness is a sign of genius."

Personnel on Un Alto En El Camino '93 incl. ex-La Crítica and Oscar D'León bassist Daniel Silva on bass and singing coro; Barros played 'bone parts, supplied arrangements and assisted Varela with studio direction. Varela added Willie García, who sang on most tracks, to his team of lead vocalists (Cardona, Vásquez and Carlos Guerrero) on Huellas Del Pasado '95. Richie Valdés reappeared to sing coro vocals on Un Alto En El Camino and Huellas Del Pasado before rejoining Guayacán. Niche returned to perform in London July '95, but disappointingly without the important authenticating presence of Varela.

Rhythmically diverse Etnia '95 saw Cardona replaced by singer Alvaro Granobles and marked the third successive appearance of José Aguirre, who in addition to playing trumpet '93-5 (all three parts on Huellas Del Pasado , first and third parts on Etnia), received credits for co-arr. '93, co-mus. dir./ harmonisation on Huellas Del Pasado , transcription and harmonisation on Etnia . Former and current Niche members sessioned on acclaimed Herencia Africana '96 by Paris-based Yuri Buenaventura (b June '67, Buenaventura, Colombia; singer/ composer).

García, Vásquez and Beto Caicedo were the trio of lead vocalists on A Prueba De Fuego '97 with co-prod., co-arr., transcription/ harmonisation and all three trumpet parts by Aguirre. Vocalist and güiro/ maracas player Guerrero departed after A Prueba De Fuego to share lead vocals on Grupo Galé's En Su Sitio , 10 Años and Con El Mismo Swing '98-00; he also recorded the solo project Libre on Codiscos. Paula Andrea replaced Caicedo on Niche's Sony finale Señales De Humo '98 with singer Wichy Camacho guesting and Aguirre preforming similar tasks to before.

Meanwhile Charlie Cardona launched a solo career '98 with Mi Propia Aventura , supervised by Sergio George, followed by El Amor Todo Lo Puede '99, both on WEA Latina; he was also featured in The Sir George Collection '98, a live recording on WEA Latina. Varela produced Jairo Varela Presenta Alma del Barrio '98 on Graba Music/ Niche Disco featuring the gloriously husky vocals of Kike Harvey.

García and Vásquez were rejoined by Caicedo and Granobles for Niche's 20th anniversary release A Golpe De Folklore '99 on the Miami based PPM label; Gómez guested in the coro. The album is regarded as a particular triumph for Alberto Barros, who co-arr., handled studio prod. and played first trombone. Niche switched to EMI Colombia for Propuesta '00, which uncharacteristically departed from Varela originals to cover Cuban classics such as Beny Moré's "Santa Isabel de las Lajas", "Bonito y Sabroso" and "Mata Siguaraya" and La Sonora Matancera's "Cañonazo". García, Vásquez, Caicedo and Granobles again provided lead vocals.

Niche won the coveted Congo de Oro prize in the Festival of Orchestras at Barranquilla Carnival '90, '91, '93, '95 and '97. Between '85 and '97 their albums attracted 10 gold discs and five platinum discs, incl. double platinum discs for Llegando Al 100% and A Prueba De Fuego . Various "best of" compilations are available.


Many thanks to Israel Tanenbaum for his feedback and input.



-This is a significantly revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com) for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK£16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.



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