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Tiempo Libre

Tampa Bay Times

Tiempo Libre Mastered Its Sound By Ignoring Music Bans In Cuba

Tampa Bay Times

Thursday, March 9, 2017

by Paul Guzzo

As students studying classical music at a conservatory in Havana, Jorge Gomez and his friends were told by teachers that learning Afro-Cuban tunes was a waste of their talents so not to bother.

Then, during the height of the Cold War, Gomez said, they were told by the Cuban government that listening to any English-language music — especially from America — was prohibited.

Gomez and friends ignored both directives.

And now, as the seven-piece United States-based band Tiempo Libre they combine these once-forbidden genres with their classical music training to create a sound that has won them three Grammy nominations plus audiences in places such as TV's The Tonight Show.

Next up for Tiempo Libre — a performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

"Coming to Tampa is fantastic," said Gomez, 45, the band's keyboardist and musical director, who currently lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "There are a lot of Cubans in Tampa who enjoy experiencing their culture."

Tiempo Libre, "Free Time" in English, specializes in the musical genre considered Timba — a mix of salsa, American R&B and Afro-Cuban folkloric music.

On Friday, the band will work with students at Blake High School, a performing and visual arts magnet school, to "educate them on all the musical styles that Cuba is famous for," said Georgiana Young, chief programming and marketing officer for the Straz. "Tiempo Libre has a great outreach program."

It's a far cry from their own youth, when Tiempo Libre had to master its style in secret.

When school let out, without ever telling their teachers, the musicians would return to their neighborhoods and learn Afro-Cuban beats from street musicians.

"The cha cha cha," musical director Gomez said in rhythm.

Then when the sun went down, they snuck out to listen to American music.

"The United States was the enemy then," Gomez said, speaking of the 1970s and 1980s, deep into rift that opened when Fidel Castro embraced Communism. "We could not listen to songs in English. Maybe it would say something against the revolution."

So, Gomez and friends would meet on the roofs of Havana apartment complexes with a portable radio and move a makeshift antenna in every direction until they could pick up a radio station in Miami.

"The Beatles, Kool & The Gang, Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire," Gomez said. "We listened and played dominoes."

They would sometimes tape the radio program and share the recordings with friends.

Other times, people they knew who could travel abroad would return with cassettes of popular bands.

This is how a teenage Gomez got his hands on a Beatles tape. But he played it too loudly in his home and a neighbor called law enforcement, which came and warned him to stop listening.

He didn't.

By the mid-1990s, one by one, he and his childhood friends had left Cuba.

Gomez visited family in Guatemala and never returned. The others performed abroad as band members and decided against going back to Cuba.

In time, they all found their way to Miami and formed Tiempo Libre.

Now, as access to Cuba opens with the normalization of relations, Tiempo Libre can envision one day performing there.

"That would be fun," Gomez said. "Special."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

read the full article: Tampa Bay Times