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Tiempo Libre

The Post Standard

Latin band Tiempo Libre will perform "Rumba Sinfonica" with Syracuse Symphony Orchestra; win tickets, CDs

The Post Standard

Monday, July 13, 2009

by Melinda Johnson

Seldom does an interview begin with an exchange of screaming. Hello ... JORGE ... Can you hear me? WHERE ARE YOU?

With the background din distorting his answer, Jorge Gomez yells he is in the middle of the ocean and will call back.

Ten minutes later, Gomez and four friends motor into a marina in Miami after a morning of ocean fishing that began at 5 a.m.

The volume never lowers as Gomez moves from sea to land, all the while talking about his upcoming performance with Tiempo Libre, his Miami-based band, and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.

"Rumba Sinfonica," composed by Ricardo Lorenz, with piano arrangements by Gomez, will open the program. Tiempo Libre will perform it with the symphony. The program will end with the twice Grammy-nominated Tiempo Libre playing its signature timba music.

The 25-minute symphony melds classical with the rhythms of Cuban dance music, moving audiences to dance.

"That's the idea," says a laughing Gomez, pianist and music director of the seven-man Tiempo Libre.

"Sometimes, no, most of the time when we play that symphony, people stand up and dance."

Has he been surprised by this reaction from listeners in concert halls since its premiere in Minneapolis in November 2007?

"At the beginning, when we started playing that symphony, yes. But, now, it's no more. Well, people are a little confused because they don't know if they're allowed to dance. But they do it," says Gomez, in his Cuban-accented English.

"When Tiempo Libre plays, we don't only play music, we transmit energy. So people have to feel that energy and move your body. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to sing, sing."

This freedom to express oneself mirrors the genesis of Tiempo Libre. The band is composed of former classmates of Cuba's premier music conservatories, Escuela Nacional de Arte and Instituto Superior. Its students are trained in classical music.

"In Cuba, you have to play the music that the government says you have to play," says Gomez, now a car passenger on the drive home.

The Cuban government also forbid students to listen to American music. At night, the musicians sometimes would play timba, which Gomez describes as a jazz, salsa fusion. Son, rumba, a dance music based with roots in African drumming, bolero and cha-cha-cha also were popular with students.

In the United States, "you can play whatever you want ... If you disagree for something or someone, you can say it in your song," he says.

In 1995, Gomez, then 23, was in the military when he and his mother were granted permission to visit family in Guatemala. They never returned. Gomez remained in Guatemala before settling in Miami in 2000

Other band members, who left Cuba for Germany, Argentina and Mexico, found themselves all living in Miami, "a second Havana," when Gomez brought them together in 2001.

He contrasts the artistic freedom the group now enjoys when performing worldwide.

"For example, the timba style that we play here in the United States has a lot to do with the American style. We play more jazzy, we play more hip hop, pop. In Cuba, you are not allowed to do that because, first, you don't live in the United States and you don't have that kind of influence."

Today, Tiempo Libre's influence is heard on flutist James Galway's CD, "O'Reilly Street," and an upcoming recording with violinist Joshua Bell. In May, the group released "Bach in Havana," which in many ways brings the musicians full circle with its Bach meets Afro-Cuban jazz.

"It's the story of our life, you know, classical music in the morning and rumba by night," he says.

For now, Gomez's focus returns to his friends' big catch of snapper and grouper.

"We are going to eat it right now," says Gomez. "We're in the car, going to the house, and at the house we have a barbecue, beer, snapper and swimming pool."

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