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Fiesta's Very Hot Niche

Downtown's unifying Broadway festival jump-starts Cinco de Mayo as a salsa band from Colombia takes center stage, heartthrob Chayanne rides in.


If you went to Sunday's Fiesta Broadway expecting to be treated to a seductive display of Latin music in all its glory, you probably left the party disappointed.

The first mistake would be to assume that the annual free festival is a musical event to start with. The dozens of acts performing on six stages throughout the Broadway district downtown are there primarily to offer a sort of backdrop for the real event.

For nine years now, Fiesta Broadway has been all about the people--an opportunity for the vast Latin community of Los Angeles to forget its differences, get together and walk, eat, collect free stuff, eat some more and then walk again. There are great taco stands, a multitude of strollers and a family atmosphere that makes you feel as if you're at an outdoor market in San Salvador or Mexico City.

Throughout the day Sunday, the musical acts rarely attempted to dazzle the audience with their musical prowess. Most of them did simply what they do best. For Los Ilegales, it was their particular brand of sex-charged rapping with tropical rhythms. For La Banda Arkangel, the lively norteno. And for Los Hermanos Rosario, the bouncy merengue beat.

Still, one band managed to make a difference. Performing at the Philip Morris stage, El Grupo Niche demonstrated once again that salsa might be the hottest genre right now in Latin popular music, and that Colombia is definitely the country that for the last decade or so has produced the most exciting and consummate brand.

The band is going through what could mildly be described as a transitional period. Its leader composer/producer Jairo Varela, is in jail in Colombia charged with having connections with the Colombian drug cartels. Far from losing its upbeat spirit, Grupo Niche keeps touring, and recently added a female vocalist to the fold.

Listening to salsa gems such as "Gotas de Lluvia" and "Sin Sentimientos," Sunday, you would never suspect that these are not the best of times for Niche. The classic "Ana Mile," the tragicomic story of an innocent girl deceived by a treacherous man, was performed vibrantly, with extra keyboard flourishes and aggressively syncopated beats on the snare drum. And the infectious "Canoa Ranchaa" was a rare treat, a percolating cumbia performed with gusto by a band that made its mark strictly with salsa material.

Singer Paula Andrea Zuleta has brought positive changes to Niche, dancing sinuously to the tunes, singing back-up vocals and addressing the audience with a lot of character.

Ironically, the Niche show was enjoyed by a comparatively small fraction of the crowd. Most of them were glued to the AT&T stage, where Chayanne performed flaccid pop ditties such as "Provocame" ("Tease Me") to the beat of recorded music and accompanied by a few dancers. Considering that the handsome singer was the grand marshal of the fiesta, one would have at least expected him to bring a band of his own to back him up.

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