Latin Night: 'This Music Is Growing Up Here'

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

When salsa singer and flutist Verny Varela arrived in Washington eight years ago, he had a pretty good musical résumé but no reputation.

"At the beginning it wasn't easy because nobody knows me," Varela says. "Except for a couple of gigs, I spent almost two years working at construction, not music, as a living. What I do now is music as a living. At the beginning, I couldn't."

On Friday, Verny Varela y su Orquesta head up "Latin Night," the last of three free Weekend's Weekends concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Also on the bill are Pablo Antonio y la Firma, an 11-piece Latin band that offers salsa, merengue, cumbia and reggaeton, and Visions of Jazz, led by another flutist, Arch "AT" Thompson.

Varela was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in the legendary Barrio Obrero, where his first musical experience came in his father's band, El Nuevo Son. While earning a degree in music from the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Varela was expanding his field work in the mid-'90s, touring Europe and the United States as a vocalist for several salsa bands, notably that of Puerto Rican legend Tito Gomez, who recently died in Cali.

What brought Varela to Washington was a desire to study at the University of the District of Columbia's highly regarded jazz studies program. "I'd heard about it and somebody recommended it, said they really knew what they were doing," says Varela, who was looking to expand his musical palate.

Yet as accomplished as he was, those first few years in Washington were a challenge, Varela admits. "I didn't know musicians or the persons who book bands, so in the beginning it wasn't easy to find out all those people."

What surprised him was the popularity of Latin dance music here.

"Some friends asked me, 'What are you going to do in Washington? Salsa and Latin music is in Miami, New York.' . . . But I was surprised, because people here love salsa and Latin music, and the clubs have teachers for how to dance salsa. That was amazing, to see how this music is growing up here."

As it happens, flute is not a key instrument in salsa, but Varela says he has always been a big fan of the Cuban dance music of the '40s called charanga, in which "violins and flute are the main instruments. When I was growing up in Colombia, I really loved the charanga style and felt I would like to learn how to play this instrument. I don't play charanga now, but I try to create my own style, flute with brass. That's what I did in this city."

At Carter Barron, Varela's ensemble will number 10 pieces, but when he started playing locally, it was with a smaller five-piece combo. "Clubs always complain about having to pay for 10 pieces, so we have to adapt sometimes," Varela says with a laugh.

It was one of those small combos that Varela took into the Rumba Cafe in Adams Morgan some years back, playing a mix of salsa, son and cumbia. In the audience one night were Rob Garza and Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, who invited Varela to their studio just a few blocks up 18th Street.

"They said, 'We are Thievery Corporation.' I gave him my business card, but to be honest, I didn't know about Thievery," Varela admits. "Then one day they called me and said, 'Come on by the studio, let's try something.' They played the track and said, 'Could you please try to do something on this?' It was new for me."

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