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Tiempo Libre

DIG Magazine

A NEW CUBAN: GRAMMY-NOMINATED MUSIC GROUP TIEMPO LIBRE PROVES MUSIC TRULY IS UNIVERSAL

DIG Magazine

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

by Sarah L. Webb

Even when words are in our language, we don’t always understand them, yet we can all dance to rhythms and bob to the beat. That’s why Jorge Gómez, pianist and musical director for the all-Cuban timba group Tiempo Libre, believes that music is a great introduction to other cultures.

“You don’t have to learn the language,” Gómez said. “You just have to learn how to move your body, how to get that energy.”

Gómez illustrates the universal quality of music that he sees whenever Tiempo Libre performs its high-energy blend of Latin jazz and traditional Cuban “son.”

“What happens when you play, for example, in Israel? They don’t understand Spanish, but they understand the music itself, so they start dancing like a Cuban would. It’s so incredible to watch,” he said.

Though the group is now based in the United States, their early experiences with American culture involved music by artists like Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire, which the band members – Gómez along with Luis Beltran Castillo, Raul Rodriguez, Xavier Mili, Wilvi Rodriguez Guerra, Armando Aarce and Leandro Gonzalez – secretly listened to as teenagers on their rooftops in Cuba. Although they used makeshift antennas made of aluminum foil and wire hangers to listen to forbidden American radio stations at night, these young musicians were getting world-class, formal music training during the day.

“I started studying music at the age of 5,” Gómez said. “In Cuba, when you start studying music, that’s your career. During the day you go to a normal school. You study mathematics until the afternoon. From 1 to 6 you study music; not only the piano, but everything about music – singing, dancing, harmony, everything.”

Though they lived in different neighborhoods in Cuba, the Tiempo Libre guys all met at school.

“We all studied together at the same school in Cuba, maybe because our fathers did the same thing before us. And also we played together. We played baseball together, soccer together, partied every weekend together. And then everybody left Cuba.”

The childhood friends dispersed around the world to places like Spain, South Korea, Italy, and Argentina, losing all contact with each other for at least a decade. By mere coincidence, they eventually found each other again in Miami.

“Miami is the second Havana in the world,” explained Gómez. “Every Cuban who leaves Cuba, sooner or later they’re going to live here, maybe to stay or maybe to visit.”

After being apart for so long, it was difficult for the old friends to recognize each other at first, but they quickly started hanging out again like old times. Now they all live in the same neighborhood.

“It’s like living in Cuba but in a different country,” Gómez explained. “Right now I can call the trumpet player and go to his house, maybe drink a Cuban coffee, maybe a beer, maybe play dominos, or maybe have a conversation. The magical thing that happened with Tiempo Libre [which means “free time”] is that when we met again here everyone was working with different artists. In our free time, we would meet together to play the music that we used to play in Cuba. It was just fun. It was an excuse to see each other.”

After spending lots of free time making music together, they eventually had enough songs to perform at concerts. Their first big performance as a group was opening for Celia Cruz in Chicago in front of 15,000 people.

“So we said, ‘Okay this is no joke anymore,’” said Gómez, laughing.

Since then, Tiempo Libre has performed sold out shows all around the world and has been nominated for three Grammys. The group has played and recorded with some infamous artists, created musical theatre, and even taught Latin and Cuban culture in kindergarten classrooms and on university campuses.

“More than our dreams have come true,” said Gómez. “So many things happen to us that we don’t even dream about. So I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, even this year.”

Gómez did say, however, the group plans to record another album soon.

As successful as the group has been, they’ve remained humbled by their experiences.

“It’s all about the way that we are living today in the United States,” said Gómez, “how we left Cuba to come here to make our dreams come true, and how appreciative we are for this country that gives us the opportunity to live here. And now we have access to the whole world. Right now I go into a store and I can buy a book and learn about culture in India or Australia and study how to play Russian music.”

Gómez clearly believes that music is a powerful and important force in the world. His description of what it’s like to perform is nothing short of magical: “When I’m performing, I become another person. I become part of my instrument. I forget who I am. I close my eyes and I become music. Whatever happens on the stage, I don’t want to remember it. It’s all about getting into the music and enjoying every note that you play and every clap.”

Indeed, many musicians have a similar experience, but Gómez insists that a Cuban performance is exceptional.

“People have to understand that we’re not going to have a concert,” said Gómez. “We’re going to have a Cuban party. So you have to be prepared to do all the crazy things that Cubans do on stage. No inhibitions. You have to become a new Cuban.”


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