Jorge Gomez interviews with The RollingZone
Friday, April 1, 2011
The Miami-based (and three-time Grammy nominated) Cuban music group Tiempo Libre will play The Ellen Theatre Thursday, May 5th — the day SonyMasterworks will release the band’s new album, “My Secret Radio,” an Afro-Cuban love letter to American music. Tiempo Libre is known around the world for their joyous timba music — a high-energy combination of Latin jazz and traditional Cuban "son." There hasn't been a concert yet where people haven't gotten out of their seats to dance in the aisles — even in Malaysia, where they spotted burka clad women boogying in the back of the theatre.
The group’s roots were planted when they were teen-agers in Cuba. Forbidden by the Cuban government to listen to American radio, they fashioned antennas out of salvaged aluminum foil and clothes hangers and climbed up on their rooftops secretly at night to tune in to the music pulsating from Miami airwaves. This music fueled their dreams of living in America and gave them the strength to leave family and country behind to pursue those dreams. Ten years after forming the first all-Cuban timba group in the U.S., Tiempo Libre's musicians are living the American dream. They have performed on NPR, at The Hollywood Bowl, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and on ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars’(they got a ‘10’).
Just as jazz has travelled from New Orleans to Chicago, New York and around the world, Tiempo Libre’s members see Cuban timba music as a living, breathing art form that continues to evolve. The group often compares its music to a tomato. If you plant a tomato in Havana soil, it will taste differently than if you plant it in Miami soil or Los Angeles soil, but it will still be a tomato. And as Cubans now living in the United States, they absorb and incorporate the musical nutrients of this country. Their distinctly Cuban-grown music now incorporates American funk, hip-hop, rap, jazz, ska and pop.
Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs and ten years since their formation, there is not a moment Tiempo Libre’s members take for granted. The RollingZone spoke with the group’s pianist and musical director, Jorge (pronounced ‘Georgy’) Gómez in Miami.
RZ: Love the bio comment about timba and tomatoes!
JG: Yes, you can have the same tomato semilla (seed), but it tastes differently depending on where you are.
RZ: Your new album describes secret rooftop recording. Can you elaborate for us?
JG: Sometimes we couldn’t hear anything. Other days you could record on a cassette the whole night. The next day you have the new music. Everyone would come to my house and listen to Chaka Khan, Kool and the Gang, Michael Jackson. It was all forbidden. You couldn’t have a CD of The Beatles or you’d be in jail. Now there is a Park called ‘The Beatles,’ with even a statue of John Lennon.
RZ: What other changes do you see in Cuba?
JG: They are changing; not in the best way, but there are stores where you can buy food and lots of new buildings. We had nothing; no food, no money, nothing.
RZ: Did you come straight to the U.S. when you left Cuba?
JG: In 1995 I went to Guatemala; it was incredible — I could go to every corner and buy some steak, a hot dog. We didn’t have that in Cuba. I did computer work and started to work in a recording studio learning how to produce a CD. At that time there were only two studios in the whole country. Now there are four or five.
RZ: Do you miss the neighborhood where you grew up?
JG: Yes, I miss it, and the kinds of games [we played]... dominoes, stories and day-by-day happenings. There was a lot of energy — positive energy all about music, having fun, drinking, going to the beach, and jokes about trying to survive.
RZ: When did you begin your musical education?
JG: With my parents; my father was a competitive pianist. He won the Tchaikovsky competition and received a lot of recognition. He taught me piano when I was four. During my childhood I would spend from 7 am - noon singing, dancing and playing piano. The afternoon (in school) was all about math and science, then homework. All Tiempo Libre members are classically trained.
RZ: Well, that hard work obviously paid off! You’ve been entertaining people worldwide for over a decade now. What did you feel seeing women in burkas dancing?
JG: At first we didn’t understand what was happening. It was unbelievable. They were dancing and making that uulating sound (Zaghareet). It happened in Turkey as well as in Malaysia. I don’t know if women are even allowed to go to concerts and mix with men. In some countries they can. Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong are incredible, beautiful countries, and they love Cuban music. They’re crazy about how to learn to play the instruments.
RZ: Your album, “Bach in Havana” takes Bach as a starting point, then explores a wide range of Cuban music forms and rhythms.
JG: Yes; every album is the story of a life. That album was about the way we grew up and studied classical music. “My Secret Radio” is the story about how we are doing now, and stories about loss, struggle, how we started following American music listening from Cuban rooftops with the very old radios antennas we made.
RZ: Did you help produce this record?
JG: Yes. All the compositions are ours. We unite in a house and do it song by song. Four of us are composers.
RZ: Do you have a ritual you use to write?
JG: Not really; we just choose a theme and say; this song is about what you do every day. I wake up, drink a cup of coffee, think about how it was in Cuba or what I’m going to do, or about my girlfriend. It’s very simple. Sometimes we write about political things. Tell people to forget about their problems, that dancing is the best medicine you can have for your body.
RZ: Is there good Cuban food in this country outside Miami?
JG: There are a lot of Cubans living in the U.S. and around the world. Italy, Greece, Malaysia all have Cuban food... even in Israel they have it.
RZ: Do you wear colorful clothing when you’re performing?
JG: We always play wearing suits. It’s very elegant. For a Latin festival in Miami we would dress more casually, but in a concert hall we dress for respect.
RZ: This may be an indelicate question, but are you here legally?
JG: Yes. I had a 15-day pass, but didn’t go back. I spent five years here and applied for citizenship. We are all here legally.
RZ: Do you think Americans take this country for granted?
JG: It depends on how you see things. Yes, a long time ago, Americans thought they were the best in the world. True, but you have to listen to other cultures and understand why they do things differently. That’s the only way you’re going to be the best in the world.
RZ: What’s great about America?
JG: The thing is, there is too much political. We need more help, not talk. Everybody [needs to] work together for a better country; not like the Democrats and Republicans fighting. We need to find a new energy, clean energy.
RZ: Speaking of that, does your band ‘travel green’?
JG: Of course, we can do acoustic concerts and don’t have to use a lot of energy. We speak a lot to the audiences in America, Africa, and Central America about those things. We give free Master classes with schools around the concert halls, and teach people how to dance Salsa, how to understand Cuban culture.
RZ: What other dances do you enjoy?
JG: All the soft melodies: balada, merengue, bachata. When you dance with your partner; I like romantic dancing. Music is a frontier where you don’t need a language. You just transmit fun to the people.
RZ: Do you ever do sad songs?
JG: (Laughs) Of course. Everybody has a sad, melancholic song, but the point is to bring the best of your life to the people, not the sad part.
RZ: How about political songs?
JG: Remember, every concert we do is in Spanish, so most people don’t understand what we’re saying.
RZ: Do you still have family in Cuba?
JG: No, my parents are here. My father is from Spain and my mother is Cuban. My dad traveled all around the world and has been married seven times, so I have brothers and sisters on his side.
RZ: Wow! How about you — are you married?
JG: Yes; I have three kids. My 13 year-old son wants to be a music producer. He loves Quincy Jones.
RZ: What do you love most about the US?
JG: The freedom and the possibility that is here. You have to work a lot, but you know for sure that you’re gonna have everything you need in your life. Some people don’t understand that, but you have to live in another country to understand. Every record we make, every concert we play seems like a gift. Each time we are about to walk on stage, I get a tingling sensation, that thrill that starts at the base of the spine and fills me with euphoria. It's that same thrill I felt up on that roof under the twinkling Havana stars, listening to my secret radio.
Be sure to come celebrate
read the full article: Bozone