skip navigation

Tiempo Libre

Tucson Citizen

Timing was just right for Tiempo Libre

Tucson Citizen

Thursday, May 3, 2007

by Tucson Citizen

Jorge Gomez has had quite a life journey – and he’s still only in his mid-30s. The Cuban-born and -schooled musician left his homeland in the rear view mirror to start anew in Miami. Once there, he began assembling his dream band, what would become Tiempo Libre (Free Time).

All seven members of the group were trained in Cuban conservatories and arrived in the U.S. at various times. They perform timba music – Los Van Van is probably the most well-known of its practitioners. When Gomez was putting the band together, he recalled in an e-mail interview, he was told, essentially, that he was crazy, that a timba band in the States just wouldn’t work.

Two Grammy nominations later – including one for their 2006 album, “What You’ve Been Waiting For (Lo Que Esperabas)” (Shanachie Entertainment) – and with performances logged all over the world, the six-year-old band is far more than a dream. Though, according to Gomez, inspiring people to jump out of their seats and dance is certainly a dream come true.

In anticipation of the band’s Friday show – its first Arizona performance – we caught up with Gomez to reflect on all-things Tiempo Libre.

PH: Explain to the uninitiated the allure of timba.

JG: Well, I always like to make analogies with food. Timba is like a spicy, rich, exquisite dish which, beautifully prepared, can transport you to another place. The basic ingredients are: the powerful, primal drums of the (African) rumba; the seductive rhythms of traditional Cuban son; and the sophisticated harmonies of jazz. To that basic recipe, you can add elements according to your own taste – hip-hop, funk, ska, rock, etc. Tiempo Libre adds liberal doses of alegría (joy) and locura (craziness). Out of this mix comes a music that makes it impossible not to get up, move, dance, to abandon all your cares. It is this animating, transporting quality that makes timba magical and irresistible.

How much of your music draws from more traditional timba? How much from newer influences?

As Cubans living outside of Cuba, we are constantly drawing from our deep roots, our Cuban musical heritage. As Timberos, we are listening all the time to Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Irakere, Charanga Habanera, all those powerhouse Cuban groups that continue to inspire and teach us. But at the same time, here in the U.S., we are surrounded by new sounds, new styles, music that was illegal for us to listen to when we lived in Cuba. And this new musical ambience permeates our music, sometimes consciously, at other times unconsciously.

An example of this is the opening of the song “Arroz Con Mango,” which is a kind of celebration of our new life here in the United States. It opens with the sounds of the batá drums – the ceremonial drums of Santería – against the opening strains of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” So, we are consciously mixing something that represents the essence of Cuba with something that would never, ever be heard on Cuban soil.

What kind of pressure do you feel (or not feel) as the premier timba band in the U.S.?

It’s nice of you to refer to us that way. For us, Tiempo Libre represents a dream come true. We left everything we had and came to America, one by one, at different times. From the moment I arrived in Miami, I had this insistent voice inside of me, pushing me to play timba, even though all my friends and colleagues here told me I was crazy, that timba could never be a success in this country. When I started Tiempo Libre, you have no idea how people ridiculed the whole idea. But all I knew was, that for me, timba was energy, timba was life.

When you feel that passionately about something, you have no choice but to risk everything. Now, of course, two Grammy nominations and many, many concerts later, Tiempo Libre seems like something inevitable. But there was a lot of painful doubt and sacrifice along the way. So this is a long way of saying that we don’t really feel pressure. What we feel is unadulterated joy – at having arrived at this moment in our lives when we have the opportunity and the privilege of making our living by playing this extraordinary music.

Your music is so fun to listen to – is it a joy to write as well?

Wow. You have no idea! I said earlier that we are Timberos. And that doesn’t just mean that we play and listen to timba music. It means we actually live timba. So, writing songs is just an expression of our lives.

Another incredible thing about Tiempo Libre is that we are like brothers. On the road, we obviously rehearse and play together, but we also eat together, hang out together, play dominoes together. We have so much fun! So, writing is just an extension of that life together. I do all the arranging and most of the composing. But at least 90 percent of our raw material, ideas and lyrics, comes from collective thoughts and experiences and ideas. We creatively inspire each other.

Any concert or on-the-road moments – random or otherwise – that sum up Tiempo Libre?

Hmm. Right now, I am on the road and I am thinking about one of the first movies I ever saw when I moved to the United States, “Field of Dreams.” So, right now we are playing in places like Storm Lake, Iowa; Boca Raton, Fla.; Austin, Texas; Bloomington, Ill. As you know, for much of our career, we have played in many unlikely places: Decorah, Iowa; Ashland, Wis..; Grand Rapids, Minn.; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Hua Hin, Thailand; to name just a few, places where timba had never been heard before.

In all those places, people warned us about the audiences, that they were very reserved, that they would listen intently but stay respectively seated in their places. But, in each place, as in the movie, a miracle occurred. And so, I spend every day of my life believing in that miracle. If you play it, they will dance.

read the full article: Tucson Citizen