Two decades after birthing it, Grupo Niche continues to nurture the Colombian salsa scene.

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Two decades after birthing it, Grupo Niche continues to nurture the Colombian salsa scene.

Grupo Niche's frontman, Jairo Varela, is something of a cultural hero in his native Colombia. When he started Niche in 1980, Colombia lacked a significant salsa scene. Niche played cumbia (a backbeat-driven form that combines Hispanic melodic structures with African rhythms and Native American harmonic components) at first, then evolved into one of Latin America's top salsa orchestras, paving the way for a rapidly growing Colombian salsa movement. Over the years, Varela has maintained strict control of the group, writing all of the material and working on all of the musical arrangements to ensure that the quality of the band never fades.

Roberto Enrique, a promoter from Miami who has worked with high-profile artists such as Tito Puente, has focused most of his attention over the past few years on managing Grupo Niche. Serving as the band's English-speaking public- relations person, he clearly believes strongly in the band's music. Speaking as a Niche member, he defines the band's goals with a long-range vision.

"We just want to keep growing and continuing as long as possible," Enrique says. "We hope to be around as long as people like Tito Puente and others we admire."

Niche has a number of reasons to believe in its continued success. Its music jump-started Colombian salsa, but its social significance strikes even deeper than its cultural impact. As an Afro-Colombian, Varela knows the racial prejudice that divides blacks from the dominant Spanish community. His music addresses this split in unifying ways.

"That's the main reason Grupo Niche has become as popular as it is," Enrique says. "Varela has written of what he has seen in his life. He tells of things that have happened to him, for instance when he walked into a store and, simply because he was black, was falsely accused of a crime that had been committed. A lot of people don't like to talk about these things, but when Niche sings these songs, everybody is singing. Rather than dividing people, it brings everybody together, black and Latin."

Another way Niche has helped foster Colombian salsa is by spawning a number of other groups as band members take off with their own distinct visions. In 1985, one of its singers, Alvaro del Castillo, went solo. (The group traditionally features three or four vocalists.) Singer Homer 'Tuto' Jiménez left in 1987 and joined the group La Cali Charanga. Alexis Lozano, a trombonist who worked closely with Varela on arrangements, founded Orquestra Guayacan in 1986. Singer Moncho Santana left and performed with a couple of different bands before fronting a group of former Niche members called Orquestra Internacional Los Niches in 1988.

Throughout these changes, Varela kept his band at the top of the heap not only with his songwriting but also with his strong sense of showmanship. His vibrant call-and-response relationship between individual vocalists as well as between vocalists and orchestra keeps the music exciting while enhancing the band's interaction with the audience. At the same time, Varela's precisely choreographed stage shows boast the qualities that distinguish the finest R&B acts in the north.

"Niche blends the technique of the Temptations with the pizzazz of 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys," Enrique says. "They play so tight that you think there is a CD playing. They are so professional it is unbelievable."

The professionalism has paid off. The band is more popular than ever, doing TV shows in Miami, New York and Houston and touring in Italy, Germany, England, Korea and Japan. "Salsa is everywhere," Enrique says. "We're about to release a new album, Hasta El Amor, and then we will be playing Minneapolis, Orlando, New York and Peru."

Despite the mix of high- and low-profile shows, Grupo Niche addresses each date with an equivalent sense of responsibility. "Three weeks ago," Enrique says, "we played Madison Square Garden. When we play a nightclub, it is no different. We give it the same energy. We're happy to be playing a different city and offering a different show."

Enrique backs up this claim convincingly, recalling a minor date a while back in Kansas City. "In 1995, we played America's Pub on a Tuesday night," he says. "I've saved ev-erything, and I still have a poster from that event. It was fantastic."

Kansas Citians who were at America's Pub seven years ago can give Enrique a witness, and other sources corroborate his claims. Previewing a Niche show, Houston Chronicle writer Ramiro Burr recalls a San Antonio concert from two years before in great detail, describing the action as "blistering," "red-hot," "sweat-drenched," "energizing and thrilling." Enrique would only say "I told you so."

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