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Tiempo Libre

The Bulletin

Bach to their root. Miami’s Tiempo Libre mixes classical with Cuban

The Bulletin

Friday, November 13, 2009

by Ben Salmon

It sounds like an amazing coincidence: Seven friends, all educated at one of Cuba’s finest schools for the arts, grow up and scatter across the world to play music, only to unexpectedly come back together in the United States and start a band.

What are the odds, right?

According to Jorge Gomez, the pianist and musical director of Miami-based Tiempo Libre, they’re not so long.

“Every Cuban to leave Cuba, they go to Miami,” Gomez said from a tour stop in Minnesota last week. “One way or another, they finish there, because there’s a lot of Cubans living there, but not only a lot of Cubans, our culture is there. Our food. Our language. Our culture. Everything.”

It was Cuban culture that brought the members of Tiempo Libre to Miami, and it’s Cuban culture they carry across America as one of the country’s finest, fastest rising Latin bands. The group will bring its energetic and highly danceable blend of Latin, jazz and classical music to Bend’s Tower Theatre on Tuesday night (see “If you go”).

Let’s rewind for a moment, though, because this is a story worth telling. Gomez and his six cohorts in Tiempo Libre were all trained at Cuba’s national school for the arts, where they split their days and evenings playing very different styles of music.

“We started together in Cuba for 15 years, playing classical music by day,” Gomez said. “By night, we were playing conga, rumba, cha cha cha, guaguanco, everything.”

It was the best of both worlds. At school, the guys honed their skills, grew their knowledge of music theory and studied the great names of the past. And in the bars and clubs that housed Cuba’s nightlife, they soaked up the vibrant sounds and insistent rhythms of their homeland and the people who came before them.

But they never talked about one day coming together and forming a band, Gomez said. So when each one of the seven headed off into the world to find his musical footing, it seemed as though the friends had splintered for good.

But for the draw of Miami, they might have.

“We’ve known each other for a long, long time, but everybody left Cuba for a different reason to a different country,” Gomez said. “For example, the conga player, he went to Argentina. The sax player, he lived 10 years in Italy. The bass player, 10 years in Germany. I was living in Guatemala.

“It wasn’t a (conscious decision) to meet again in Miami, but when we (saw each other) again, we said, ‘Oh my God, how are you? Married with child? Oh my God, we need to do something! We have to remember that time in Cuba. Let’s play timba!’”

The call of “timba” is seductive, for sure. It’s a popular Cuban dance music that ties together the influence of funk and soul with the African and Latin traditions of the Cuban musical style called “son,” all supercharged with an intense focus on rhythms so relentless they’ll wear out just about any dance floor. It was timba that powered Tiempo Libre’s early career and led to two Grammy nominations, one each for the 2005 album “Arroz con Mango” and 2006’s “What You’ve Been Waiting For / Lo Que Esperabas.”

Of course, no true artist is content to work the same fields over and over, so when it came time to record Tiempo Libre’s new album, the guys wanted to push themselves, Gomez said. And to do that, they simply drew from their past.

The result is “Bach in Havana,” an elegant album that fuses the classical masterpieces of Johann Sebastian Bach with the modern flair of Latin dance music. The combination sounds odd at first, perhaps, but according to Gomez, Bach’s work is a perfect foundation for the timba style.

“I know every (note of) Bach. I studied Bach a lot,” Gomez said. “And basically, he had ... exactly the rhythm that we need to (add) the Cuban flavor, the Cuban touch.”

Bach’s sense of rhythm is more mathematical than, say, the smoother, more romantic works of composers such as Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt, Gomez said, and that’s exactly why his music meshes so well with timba.

“The fantastic idea is to see people dancing with the music of (Bach),” Gomez said. “We never imagined something like (his music) played in a guaguanco style and people dancing with that. Oh man, that’s weird.

“It’s weird for us, but people dance all the time,” he continued. “They don’t care if it’s Bach or Beethoven or Mozart, they only feel the energy that we make with the music.”

The people may not care if it’s Bach or Beethoven or Mozart, but Gomez and the rest of his compatriots do. For them, “Bach in Havana” represents a challenge to be not only a band that can handle both timba and classical music, but also one that can take two seemingly disparate styles, mingle them, and produce a sound that sounds totally natural.

On a deeper level, though, the new record represents Tiempo Libre. Period.

“We grew up in that world, classical and Cuban. That CD is the story of our life,” Gomez said. “That thing you’re going to hear? It’s our life.”

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