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Tiempo Libre

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Tiempo Libre adds Cuban rhythms to Bach melodies

77 Square

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

by Lindsay Christians

"Bach in Havana," the latest album from Tiempo Libre, is a joining of musical worlds.

The seven-piece band, raised in Cuba and now based in Miami, is known for playing timba, a form of Cuban salsa music. But on "Bach in Havana," the musicians return to their roots in Western classical training, taking melodies written by Johann Sebastian Bach and re-imagining them with Afro-Cuban rhythms. They'll be playing selections from that album when they perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, Nov. 5.

Band leader and vocalist Jorge Gomez explained that the group is going back to its beginnings, when the members studied Bach and other composers at the same school in Cuba.

It's not uncommon for popular artists to use Bach's melodies and re-apply them. The Swingle Singers built its reputation as a jazz group around this technique, and recently, pop artist Jem used the opening of Prelude No. 12 in F Minor as the basis for the song "They."

"If you cross Buena Vista Social Club with Chick Corea or Wynton Marsalis, that sounds like timba," Gomez said of the band's signature style. "Timba is more or less an evolution of the Cuban rhythm with salsa. In Cuba, we put the salsa with cha cha cha, with a lot of jazz. Timba is more aggressive. Of course, you dance with that."

Tiempo libre means "free time" in Spanish, but the band doesn't have much of that these days. Between academic workshops -- earlier this year the musicians spent a week in residency at Michigan State University in East Lansing -- and touring, they appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" on Oct. 27 playing a track from their new CD, "Tu Conga Bach."

"It was so beautiful, so intense," Gomez said of the gig. In early October, the band appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien, playing "Para Ti," a duet it recorded with violinist Joshua Bell.

"There are a lot of great musicians I'd like to play with -- Josh Groban, Chris Botti," Gomez said, mentioning two of Bell's other collaborators on his new "At Home With Friends" CD.

James Galway, who is set to play with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Nov. 14, collaborated with Tiempo Libre on an album called "O'Reilly Street," released by RCA in autumn 2008.

Tiempo Libre's popularity has experienced a steady boost as more Americans become aware of timba and other kinds of Caribbean and Latin American music.

"Here in the United States, it's the beginning of the timba," Gomez said. "In Europe and Asia, there are a lot of Cuban bands playing. But there weren't here in the U.S. The Cubans living here now have an opportunity to teach, and explain what timba is. In Italy, Spain, France, everybody knows timba.

"Five years ago, eight years ago there weren't timba bands in the United States. You'd just hear salsa, merengue, cha cha. Maybe Celia Cruz, but that was the whole duration. By now you have a lot of timba in San Francisco, New York, in L.A."

Gomez said the band is still bringing timba to people who are hearing it for the first time. Still, by the end of each concert, everyone is up and dancing, whether they're new to the music or not.

"We do a lot of music that they'd know for sure, like 'Guantanamera,' and then they dance," Gomez said. "Sometimes they start dancing at the first song, and that's amazing."



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