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Tiempo Libre

Chicago Tribune

Spreading timba as complex as its arrangements

Chicago Tribune

Sunday, July 31, 2005

by Aaron Cohen

For the Cuban timba group Tiempo Libre, a 2002 gig at Ravinia provided some needed encouragement. But the importance of the gig for the young musicians really hit home when bandleader Jorge Gomez met that night's headliner.

"There's nobody more important in the hearts of Cuban musicians than Celia Cruz," Gomez says. "And there she was joking with us in the hotel -- walking around with her wig in her hands saying, `Hey muchachos, you want some coffee?'"

At that point, Gomez knew how far he had come from his beginnings in Havana. In the next few years, Tiempo Libre -- which means "free time" -- would bring timba to even more distant cities. But the pianist's devotion to a rhythmic music he describes as "Cuban son mixed with jazz" has not been easy.

Born into it

One of timba's features is the complexity of its arrangements. Gomez was practically born into learning this discipline as his father, Jorge Gomez Labrana, is a classical pianist and his mother, Tamara Martin, was a prominent musicologist in Cuba. At age 5 in 1976, Gomez entered Cuba's conservatory system.

When Gomez began at the conservatory, jazz as well as Cuban folk and popular music were academically prohibited. But by the time he became a teenager, the government realized that those genres' international popularity could work to its advantage. So he was allowed to teach them in the mid-1980s.

The decision to leave Cuba a few years later was "complex and painful," Gomez says. He joined his mother in immigrating to Guatemala in 1995. Because of his training, he found plenty of opportunities to teach, perform, even record advertising jingles. Gomez was also able to work within different styles for the first time.

"You can hear samba and merengue on the radio in Cuba," Gomez says. "But you don't play them."

Six years after arriving in Guatemala, Gomez moved to Miami. There, he was able to meet other Cuban musicians who he felt had the necessary preparation to form a group. Equally important was finding the right combination of instrumentalists, because the lineup makes timba different from another popular kind of Latin dance music.

"In traditional salsa, most of the percussion is from the congas and timbales," Gomez says. "In timba, you're also using a full drum kit to give it a fuller, more aggressive sound."

Great impression

But it was salsa trombonist Jimmy Bosch who told Ravinia president Welz Kauffman about Tiempo Libre. As Kauffman was looking for a group to open for Cruz, he says he was, "knocked out by [Tiempo Libre's] approach to musicmaking" on a demo.

That demo became Tiempo Libre's self-produced debut, "Timbiando," last year. As a sign of the group's improved fortune, its recent disc, "Arroz Con Mango" [Rice with Mango] (Shanachie), was recorded and mixed at Miami's sophisticated Univibe Recording Studios.

Just as Tiempo Libre's music is prominent for its multilayered aggression, the group's lyrics are notable for their portrayal of a young Cuban-American generation. The title track embraces the musicians' island heritage and their life in the United States. Unlike many older Cubans, nostalgia does play a big part of this outlook.

"A lot of Cubans who came over [here] earlier had a different history in Cuba," Gomez says. "Their lyrics were about going back to Cuba and possibly a bitterness towards the [Fidel Castro] regime, or whatever. We feel that we are paying homage to our Cuban roots, but we want to give thanks to the U.S. for giving us opportunities to pursue our dreams."

Sweet freedom

And while the musicians in Tiempo Libre enjoy the freedom that America offers, they also disdain the lack of opportunities to work in their adopted hometown.

"Here in Miami, everyone thinks they know everything about timba," Gomez says. "But the money is all in Latin pop, like reggaeton."

Some Latin music observers add that timba is not heard as often in its homeland nowadays. Peter Watrous, who writes for the influential online Latin music retailer,, praises "Arroz Con Mango" as "the best timba recording to show up in a year or so," as he speculates why it comes from Miami (as opposed to Havana). After claiming that "the straight-up timba scene in Cuba is seemingly over," Watrous decides that another reason for the disc's achievement is that Tiempo Libre is, simply, "getting better and better."

Big in Asia

Even if live timba is not heard so often in Miami, Tiempo Libre has found a significant audience in Southeast Asia. During a tour last year, Gomez was struck at how similar Indonesian percussion patterns are to Cuban bata drumming. He intends to bring some Asian styles to the group's next disc.

Gomez also marvels at how Islamic audiences respond to Tiempo Libre in Malaysia.

"You'd see, in the back of the hall, burkha-clad women getting to their feet and swaying to the music."

Although Kuala Lumpur is a ways from Havana, Gomez says Tiempo Libre's appeal in such distant cities may come from the relative ease of timba's accompanying dance steps.

"Salsa comes with those fancy moves that people need to learn -- where they're intimidated if they can't do a turn," Gomez says. "We're just trying to encourage people to get up and feel free; that's the secret of timba."

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