Increasingly, the Cuban-emigre, Miami-based band Tiempo Libre’s name is starting to sound like a serious misnomer.
After all, when exactly is this workaholic septet supposed to have “free time,” given its steady output of CDs spotlighting the group’s timba stylings (an amalgam of jazz, funk, salsa and sones); its collaborative jams with classical blue-chippers like James Galway and Joshua Bell; and a vigorous touring schedule that will bring the band to the Broad Stage this Saturday?
Tiempo Libre savors such paradoxes, perhaps because its members were raised in Havana. Growing up in that world-class capital of contradictions, pianist and group leader Jorge Gómez and his colleagues spent their daylight hours studying classical music at the La Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory, with its rigid Soviet-style pedagogy that prohibited playing traditional Afro-Cuban music, under threat of expulsion.
For Gómez, the son of a classical-pianist father and musicologist mother, who’d grown up being exposed to all kinds of music, it was bizarre to experience such cultural quarantining. One of the band’s three Grammy-nominated albums, the 2009 “Bach In Havana,” even uses congas and brass to excavate subterranean Caribbean currents in the Baroque composer’s cantatas and partitas.
“What happens in Cuba is that they are constantly changing the laws,” he says, speaking in Spanish by phone from his Miami home. “The music keeps going the same way, but the perspective of seeing these two worlds being joined together is what changes. Before you couldn’t play Cuban music in school. But at the time when I finished school, when I graduated, a law was put it in that said you could teach Cuban music in school. These things are strange.”
Gómez would put in 11-hour school days. Then at night he and his friends would steal away to their homes’ rooftops to play dominoes and listen to Miami radio stations drifting across the Straits of Florida. They would use a coat hanger for an antenna, “the higher up, the better,” Gómez says, though you had to be wary of sudden wind gusts.
From those illicit hip-hop, R&B;, rock and pan-Latin sounds, which the band celebrated on its 2011 album “My Secret Radio,” Tiempo Libre eventually would fashion its distinctive version of Cuban timba, a sort of funkier salsa-on-steroids. Their heroes would be groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, the ‘70s ensemble that combined U.S. R&B;, soul and funk with Afro-pop rhythms, aggressive horn sections, and an overall lush symphonic sound.
But the true history of timba was trickier. It had been developed during the so-called Special Period of the early 1990s, when the collapsing Soviet Union withdrew its Cold War financial and political support for Fidel Castro.
“There was no money, there was no food, no gas, nothing,” Gómez says. “It was like a war without gunfire.”
Deprived of its superpower patron, the Cuban economy shrank overnight. The Castro regime’s emergency measures included allowing more tourists in, to provide a quick cash infusion. Those tourists brought new sounds with them, the partial foundations of timba, which Tiempo Libre liberated on two Grammy-nominated albums, “Arroz con Mango” and “Lo que Esperabas."
But the band members never abandoned their classical roots, which they aspired to make part of their repertoire. First, though, they had to find a way out of Cuba.
For Gómez the opportunity came when he was wrapping up his mandatory two-year military service and was granted permission to visit a family contact in Guatemala in 1995. He ended up working five years in Guatemala City as a musician and arranger, running three different bands (jazz, salsa and folkloric) and making advertising jingles for Coca-Cola and other products.
“I studied a lot of things that we didn’t have in Cuba,” he says. “For example in Cuba, yes, there were a lot of instruments to play, but there was no technology. In Guatemala it was the first time that I encountered a computer, a sequencer, a synthesizer.”
Because his father was a native of Spain, Gómez also was able to obtain a Spanish passport, which he used in 2000 to immigrate to Miami, where many of his friends and relatives had arrived 20 years earlier during the Mariel boat lift.
Gómez quickly settled into the Florida city’s huge island ex-pat cultural community, touring with the legendary Albita and reuniting with his old school comrades. But in their new U.S. career track, Tiempo Libre’s members resolved not to limit themselves to traditional Cuban music alone.
“We did everything we did to become a better person and a better musician, but more than anything in order to survive here, because it’s very hard to survive only playing Cuban music at a club.”
Tiempo Libre is thriving with that philosophy, recording their own records, collaborating with other best-selling musicians, touring the world and starting to pop up on late-night talk shows and other profile-enhancing engagements.
Other musicians aren’t so fortunate. Despite the recent easing of travel restrictions between Cuba and the U.S., Gómez says, it remains financially prohibitive for most Cuban artists to tour stateside. He acknowledges he doesn’t expect the political tensions between the two countries to ease dramatically any time soon.
But culturally he believes it’s a different story. “I think it’s going to get better,” he says, “because at the end we’re all Cubans, we’re all one family.”
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