We recently chatted with Verny Varela, the multifaceted composer, arranger, and performer who traces his musical roots back to Cali, Colombia. In true Cali style, Verny started out his career with major influences from the old school salsa stars like El Gran Combo and Fania All-Stars before branching out to incorporate the more modern sounds of salsa choke in his music. This evolution of salsa pa’ la calle incorporates urban and African sounds into Cali’s traditional salsa scene, reflecting its diverse origins and populations.
Verny has also experimented with other musical genres, especially while working with and performing as a part of the Thievery Corporation band, which incorporates trip-hop, acid jazz, and electronica sounds. He has performed worldwide—from South America to Europe to his current home in Washington, D.C., where he teaches in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Howard University.
Here’s what Verny had to share with us about his progression as an artist, his newest single, “Vive el momento,” and what he’s looking forward to next.
HipLatina: Cali is known as the salsa capital of the world—how do you reflect this in your music?
Verny Varela: When people think of Cali they really think salsa, but things are starting to change now. Genres from other regions are moving into Cali and starting to fuse with the traditional salsa sound. You’ll hear bachata, salsa, reggaeton, and now even the salsa choke. Though when it comes down to it, Cali is still the true salsa capital, regardless of what other influences have been adopted.
HL: Do you feel your music is limited to salsa or does it incorporate other genres as well? Is this impacted by places you have lived or groups you have performed with?
VV: Yes, it definitely expands to other genres. I was part of Thievery Corporation where I composed different albums focusing on other genres. This was really something different for me. There was a lot of Latin fusion with electronic and other new styles. Since I live in DC where there are people from all over, I do cha-cha, bachata, merengue, not just salsa. I like to play different types of music to reflect the diverse fan base that we have here.
HL: What was it about the book The Power of Now that inspired you to write your latest song, “Vive el momento”?
VV: The book is really amazing and I wanted to branch off of that. I thought I could try to capture the message in a song for those who haven’t read the book. Songs are catchy and easy for people to remember once they hear them. And the message is an important one: we can’t be worried too much on the past or the future. We need to focus on what’s happening now.
HL: You’ve stated that for “Vive el momento” and for your music in general, you try to fuse street music with music of your academic world. How are you able to achieve this?
VV: When you go to school, you learn more about technique. I had a classical background. When you’re on the street listening to music, you’re hearing something totally different. I tried to use what I learned about music in school and combine this with what I was hearing in commercial and popular music. I tried to mix those things to get a new and different sound, which would still be universally liked.
HL: You also had some powerful collaborations for “Vive el momento”: Axel Tosca on piano and bassist Ruben Rodriguez. Was it your first time collaborating with them? Do you often collaborate with other artists?
VV: These were special guests for this recording. I like to work with different people and wanted to work with this group. They’re located in New York and are very busy to get a hold of, but they’re amazing. Ruben Rodriguez is an amazing bass player who used to play with Serio George. He did recordings with Tito Puente and Celia Cruz also. He’s a great performer. They have so much experience. Axel Tosca is a spectacular Cuban pianist who helped bring some of that Caribbean flavor to the recording—the timba sound which has also gotten to be popular in Cali now.
HL: You primarily sing in Spanish. Is this decision a conscious one, and how do you think it impacts your audience?
VV: I’ve done a Michael Jackson cover of “You Are Not Alone” in English, but that’s the only one I’ve done. I like to focus on the Spanish speaking demographic since this makes up such a big part of the United States and at the same time represents where I come from. But who knows what will happen in the future, maybe we’ll move to recording more English songs.
HL: What are you looking forward to next?
VV: I’m here in Miami now with Rock the Moon Productions. Then I’ll be back in Washington D.C. to play some festivals there. Then I’m going back to Cali in Colombia for some of the summer festivals. I have a video I’ll be filming there and hoping to finish the album by the end of December.