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Tiempo Libre

New York Daily News

Beating the drum for timba

New York Daily News

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

by MAITE JUNCO

Question: What do you get if you mix contemporary Cuban music with jazz?
A relatively new genre called timba, says Jorge Gómez, the pianist and director of Tiempo Libre, a timba group he started in 2001.
And if you mix timba with Bach?
“Bach in Havana,” the group’s third album, which is up for a Grammy Award on Jan. 31 for Best Tropical Latin Album.
“This album is the story of our lives, not only of the members of Tiempo Libre, but I imagine of many Cuban musicians who in the morning studied classical music and at night played rumba, guaguancó, danzón, cha-cha-chá,” explains Gómez, 38, listing Cuban musical rhythms. “We mixed that nocturnal world with the classical world.”
Gómez and the other six members of Tiempo Libre all grew up in Cuba and studied for 15 years at the island’s top conservatory, Escuela Nacional de Arte in ­Havana.
They left Cuba through different countries. Gómez joined family members in Guatemala in 1995; others went to Italy and Argentina. But eventually all of them landed in Miami.
Gómez spent his first six months in the U.S. making ends meet by “painting houses, gardening, washing dishes,” he says, until Cuban singer Albita was looking for a pianist and he got the job.
“I started to travel with her in the U.S., and when I got my papers, we started going abroad, to Malaysia, Mexico,” Gómez says in Spanish.
A year later, Tiempo Libre (literally, “Free Time”) was born, named for the timba music that members of the group — many of whom performed with Albita — liked to play in their off hours.
The band just wrapped up a busy year in which it appeared as part of a promotion on 1 million cans of Bustelo coffee, performed on “Dancing With the Stars,” signed with Sony and ­recorded “Para Ti” with ­Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell in his latest release, “At Home With Friends.”
Tiempo Libre will perform at the Jan. 21 “Joshua Bell Live From Lincoln Center” PBS broadcast and at S.O.B.’s on Jan. 22.
Timba, a faster-paced rhythm than salsa, started in the early 1980s with the Cuban group Irakere, Gómez said. First, the band played jazz, “and then they added a singer, and that’s how timba began, the mix of jazz with Cuban music.”
“When we started Tiempo Libre, there was no timba in ­Miami; it was not played on the radio, no one knew it. But because it was what I had been playing in Cuba, I said, ‘I’d rather be happy playing what I know.’”
Now, says Gómez, there’s a lot of “timberos” in the U.S., citing Manolín, El Médico de la Salsa; Carlos Manuel; La Bolá, and Leandro y su Tratado. And in Cuba, La Charanga Habanera, NG La Banda, Paulito y su Elite, and El Clan, to name a few.
“Almost all groups in Cuba play timba,” Gómez said. “Now in Cuba they are mixing the timba with reggaetón to make it more commercial.”
Tiempo Libre’s first two CDs — “Arroz con Mango” (2005) and “Lo Que Esperabas” (2006) — also got Grammy nominations.
They have yet to win. Maybe New York will prove to be a lucky charm. The Bach CD took its first steps here.
“One night, I was in Brooklyn with a girl,” Gómez recalled. “She was playing Bach and I picked some tumbadora drums and started playing a guaguancó and we were, like, ‘Wow, this works.’ That’s how it started.”



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