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Tiempo Libre

Star News Online

Grammy-nominated Tiempo Libre's fiery Cuban jazz

Star News Online

Thursday, January 25, 2007

by Roberta Penn

Like salsa, which rose out of Latino barrios in New York during the '60s, timba evolved from tight-knit communities in 1980s Cuba. Both have that Afro-Cuban heartbeat that sets dancers afire. But to those who play the music, there are subtle differences.

"Timba has more jazz," explained Jorge Gomez, the keyboardist and band leader for timba combo Tiempo Libre. "We use jazz harmony."

The all-Cuban Tiempo Libre plays Thalian Hall on Friday, but you might also be able to see them on Feb. 11, if the band's most recent CD, What You've Been Waiting For, wins the Grammy in the Tropical Salsa Album category. (It's Tiempo Libre's second Grammy nomination.)

Tiempo Libre is a young band, born in Miami's Cuban American enclave five years ago. But the members of the eight-piece group (whose roles are drummer, timbale player, conga player, saxophonist, trumpeter, keyboardist, bassist and lead vocalist) are not second- or third-generation Cuban Americans. They were all born and raised in Cuba and share a collective experience.

"We started playing together in the same school in Cuba," Gomez said. "Everybody has studied 15 years. The teachers of all Cuban students are those who made Cuban music famous around the world: Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Celia Cruz, Cacho."

Gomez and his mother left Cuba a decade ago, when he was 25. "I left Cuba because I had a lot of dreams I wanted to make come true, and here you can do that, Gomez said. "It's more difficult in Cuba."

Those dreams are being realized. Tiempo Libre has played coast to coast, garnering good reviews and adoring audiences along the way. Tours have taken them to Thailand and China.

Gomez attributes the group's popularity to the musicians' educated playing. With their mentors having rooted them in the Afro-Cuban jazz milieu, they improvise, taking the tunes to different places in each concert. It's a high level of playing that is also popular. Gomez said that being in the right place at the right time has also made it easier for them to rise to national standing.

"Right now Americans want to dance timba. They want to speak Spanish and they want to eat Cuban food," he said. "We love timba - we grew up in that style - and we want people to know about it."

Gomez's efforts to bring his culture alive in the U.S. hasn't stopped him from taking on pieces of what it means to be American. He's learning English as fast as he can, and Gomez has married a woman from Wilmington. His connection to Cuba is still very much alive, and he wishes Tiempo Libre could return to Cuba to play.

That can't happen with the current relationship the island country has with the U.S. (The U.S. government no longer allows American artists to travel to Cuba to perform at its international jazz festival.) But even though the two countries have grown further apart over the past 15 years, Gomez has not taken on the feelings of many Cuban immigrants in Miami: He won't say he's anti-Castro.

"I'm anti-politics," Gomez said. "My work is to make people happy, not make them confused."


read the full article: Star News Online