Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tunes for Tuesday; Songs Most Colombians Will Recognize #5

This list wouldn't be complete without a song written by one of the most prolific musical minds of Colombia, Jairo Varela.

Back in the early 90s, I remember anxiously tuning in for an interview he gave on Colombian National Television. Jairo Varela was at the zenith of his career then, and having been witness to his musical success, I was ready to finally meet this impressive musician. There are two things about that interview that remain with me to this day. First, he was a man of few words, almost shy. The interviewer had a difficult time prodding for more than just single word answers. I was expecting him to be just as eloquent as his music. Second, he said that at the time he had written and composed more than 300 songs, most of which had remained unpublished. I guess that, in a way, my second observation helps explain the first: He communicated better through his songs.

Jairo Varela, from Quibdó, Chocó, Colombia, might not be as well known as is his band, El Grupo Niche. Varela started Niche sometime between 1979 and 1980. In 1984, Niche released its fifth album appropriately titled, No Hay Quinto Malo (There's No Bad Fifth, an expression borrowed from the art of bullfighting and somewhat akin to "The Fifth time is the Charm"). The fifth track on Niche's fifth album is our fifth and final pick in this series:

Cali Pachanguero by El Grupo Niche

This song became the Official Song of the Feria de Cali that year, the unofficial Official Song of the Feria de Cali every year after that, and the unofficial City Anthem of Cali, period. Not a small accomplishment considering that Cali is the Salsa Music Capital of Colombia (and the Salsa Music Capital of the World). Since the rest of the country doesn't even question Cali's reputation, we just went with it, and this song is an Anthem for all Colombians. I have a recording of Niche playing it at the Madison Square Garden in New York City, in front of a very loud crowd of mostly Colombians, I'm guessing, since they all seemed to be able to sing along.

The song, of course, is simply about Cali being so cool, happy, and Salsa oriented. Some say that the singer is Tito Gómez, a Colombian from Puerto Rico (we claim him!) who also had sung with La Sonora Ponceña and Rubén Blades. While Tito Gomez sang a lot of Niche's best known songs, he actually didn't join Niche until 1985. He left Niche eight years later and ironically, during a reunion with the band in 2007, he passed away of a heart attack in his adoptive homeland of Cali, Colombia. Niche was a launching pad for several other great musicians who left the band to form their own, including Alexis Lozano who spun off to form Orquesta Guayacán.

Finally, I am not sure what Jairo Varela had in mind when he named his band. Niche (pronounced KNEE chay), according to the Spanish Royal Academy, is a word reserved to denote something of poor taste or conduct. When said about a person, it refers demeaningly to his or her black race. I'm sure, however, that he has taken the word and turned its meaning upside down. Yes, he is black like almost one third of Colombians. He is also a remarkably creative human being and what tasteful music he has written. So, here's to Jairo Varela and his very own brand of Salsa, Niche's "Cali Pachangero":






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