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Tiempo Libre

Wall Street Journal

Grammys 2010: Tiempo Libre Mixes Cuban Music and Classical

Wall Street Journal

Sunday, January 31, 2010

by John Jurgensen

The list of Grammy Award nominees runs deep, and only a handful of boldface names will take the stage during Sunday night’s ceremony. Yet throughout the nominations in 109 categories are acts carving out robust careers in various corners of music culture. Three-time Grammy nominee Tiempo Libre, seven Cuban musicians based in Miami, has staked out unique turf: classical music crossed with Latin rhythms.

Led by 38-year old musical director and keyboardist Jorge Gomez, Tiempo Libre’s latest album, “Bach in Havana” takes the measured and familiar themes of J.S. Bach and purees them in the blender of timba, the Cuban variant of salsa music. From its base in club culture, Tiempo Libre has built its profile on the classical circuit, performing at festivals such as Ravinia, a major Chicago-area outdoor music event. The group has also teamed up on occasion with violinist Joshua Bell, who records for the same company (Sony) and is represented by the same talent agency (IMG).

Recently the group performed with Bell on “The Tonight Show” and at Lincoln Center. Speakeasy spoke with Gomez, who fled Cuba at age 25, about Tiempo Libre’s Grammy nomination for “best tropical Latin album” and their roots in classical music.

The Wall Street Journal: On your nominated album, “Bach in Havana,” you mixed Cuban music with classical music. If that isn’t an attempt at a crossover, I don’t know what is.

That’s the story of our life. All the members of Tiempo Libre, we started at 15 years old studying music at the conservatory in Cuba. By night we were playing cha cha cha and rumba. That was easy for us because that was the dream. It’s so easy to mix classical music and Cuban traditional rhythms.

Can you give me an example of how you do that?

At the beginning I was trying to imagine every melody in different rhythms. Bach’s Minuet in G, [singing] da dee-da-dee-da-dee da da, you have to change the time. You go from three-four time and put it in four-four to make it guaguancó [a rumba-style rhythm and dance] and a melody that you can dance to. When you do these things, you have to feel it.

How would you compare the conservatory system in Cuba to what you’ve seen in the U.S and other countries?

It’s very disciplined there. You can only go to school and play classical music. You can’t listen to American music. At the same time we learned all our life about the American musicians. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson. They made my life. Every night until 3 a.m. I was listening to American radio.

You’ve collaborated with symphonies and performed at many classical festivals. What was your entry point into that world?

We were in a classical business company [talent agency], IMG. They represent classical musicians and we are representing Cuban music, so it’s very easy for us to play in that kind of venue. It’s part of our life. Every concert we do is like a class for the people. They don’t know what’s going to happen but right away they feel something strong. We play cha cha cha and “Guantanamera.” There are two or three songs that people really respond to. With “Tu Conga Bach,” you’re going to remember Desi Arnaz with that conga. The second one, “Fuga” (based on Sonata in D minor) is a very commercial thing. You feel it.

At classical venues you’re playing to audiences who are used to sitting quietly and listening attentively, not dancing.

It depends. We don’t make the people stand up and dance. That’s not our goal. Our goal is for them to enjoy the shows. I change it for them. Sometimes it’s a jazz night, not a Cuban night. You do this by watching them, the body language. Every time it’s different. The audience changes. When you play a culture house you don’t use the same sound level. You’re going to be serious. In the club, you play the song in a different way.

What other kinds of projects are you exploring?

We’re going to try working with traditional singers in Cuba. We’re going to rescue that music and put that in a more contemporary situation. We want to put Cuban music in Hollywood. We’re talking with different people about soundtracks. We did something here in Miami, a musical theater show called “Miami Libre.” We put the whole thing on. Dancers, singers, 50 people on stage. We’re looking to do that in New York on Broadway.

Has it become easier for Cuban musicians to travel to the U.S. and perform here?

Right now we have a new Cuban revolution in the United States. They are starting to come to Miami, L.A., and New York. [Cuban act] La Charanga Habanera played three nights ago at [New York City club] S.O.B.’s. We’ve been waiting 10 years to see that kind of thing happen.

This is the third time you’ve been nominated for a Grammy award. How do you rate your chances for a win?

You know, we have hope when this wonderful thing happens, but it’s a very competitive thing. [Fellow nominees] Isaac Delgado, Omara Portuondo, they all have a very long career. Thirty years. We are the new guys. But we all have the same audience. They know who we are.

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