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Tiempo Libre

Even New Yorkers need a little Tiempo Libre

Friday, July 1, 2005

by Lani Milstein

Being the timbaphile that I am, I had to sacrifice work last Friday night to go see Tiempo Libre at S.O.B.’s. It was worth every lost penny.

We must first understand the environment from which I speak. New York City, supposedly a fountain of Latin music, is in reality a desert in regards to timba. The why’s of this lack of presence are another topic. However, the few timberos that do exist always go out to support whatever timba event. Tiempo Libre, having graced NYC twice last year, impressed us then, so we returned to dance. Let me set the scene a little more: S.O.B.’s, a club in downtown Manhattan where many greats play, also tends to draw a very non-Latino crowd. So I arrived at 8:00, when the first set was supposed to start (thinking of course I had at a good 45 minutes to hang). I surveyed the room. It was full of people with arms crossed, some dining at tables, and no one even near the dance floor in anticipation. Well, I planted myself there and waited. At 8:20 or so, the stage erupted and at the very same moment all 8 casineros were on the dance floor, and the sweating began (Hint: I know the music is good when I don’t want to stop dancing to analyze it).

I always have hesitations and anticipate disappointment when seeing live timba or ‘Cuban’ bands that were founded within North America, and not without reason. Many artists feel the need to adapt the music to make it more ‘listenable’ aka easier for the non-Cuban or untrained ear. They call this ‘fusing,' and although timba itself is by definition a fusion, I have seen too many Cuban artists try this with horrible poppy outcomes. Tiempo Libre, however, do it very, very well. The biggest influence here is JAZZ. Much of their first disc, “Timbiando,” consists of remakes of already-done-too-many-times classics. But MAN do they pull it off.

The set began with a song called Esa mujer from their new CD “Arroz con mango,” which totally kick started the show – you know, those songs that are almost too fast to dance to, reminiscent of early Charanga Habanera-style velocity. By the second song the dance floor was full of people dancing (or at least moving their bodies uncontrollably in appreciation of the music). Y ya vemos. El cuarto de Tula was the next song, but it was totally timbafied, and far superior to their recorded version. Ven pa’ Miami, also from “Arroz con mango,” was a rockin’ cha-cha-cha that made obvious who the timberos were when el Kid called out “Porque en Miami hay una pila de locos!” Bilongo followed, with a sweet piano solo by Jorge Gomez, the founder of the group (and only original member left). But let me say NEVER have I heard a version of this song with such tremendo despeloteeeeeeeeeeee! CoÑOOOOOOOOOOOO to’el mundo pa’l piiiiisooooo!!!!! Lagrimas negras, also recorded on “Timbiando,” had tremendous swing, full of beautiful jazz chords subtly and not so subtly layered amongst some nice brass lines. Pavel (Díaz, from Issac Delgado’s group) threw in a very serious trumpet solo which made obvious how much he will bring to this band. To finish the first set they fed us a fully funked up Guantanamera which, although the song normally makes me groan, made me say “Huh. Si.”

The second set was, disappointingly, a repeat of much of the first set although the first song, Se ponen from “Arroz con mango,” was super hard timba. They followed that with a cover of Polo Montañez's Monton de estrellas, which of course was a crowd pleaser.

El Kid shines as a front man

Tiempo Libre I can say generally is a crowd pleaser, in the sense that people who say “Cuban music? Oh I love the Buena Vista Social Club” can handle this. But, timberos and musicians can also listen and say ‘damn’. El Kid, known mostly as a corista, is a fantastic front man. He has the very important job, which is a HUGE contribution to this group’s success, of keeping the energy high during and between songs, as well as keeping the audience involved. Tebelio (Tony) Fonte, the bass player, threw in some bass lines that gave a very prominent funky core to the music, that, per its traditional repetoire, made it anything but. And the two new additions to the group definitely state that the band will only get better. Pututi II, coming of course from Manolín, el medico de la salsa, donates major stability with his kit playing, managing very well to accompany while giving us hints here and there as to how much MORE he has tucked away. And Pavel played trumpet with such fullness I could have sworn he wasn’t alone up there. Although Eduardo, the Venezuelan wind player, did play with an electric that had synth abilities, the fullness of the sound between the two of them was impressive. And, this is one of T.L.’s biggest triumphs: achieving such a full, rich sound with only 7 people on stage (which normally is done by at least 10). Every member sang coro in addition to their own instrument, and each one did so solidly and on pitch. Rather than have two or three guys there solely for the purpose of singing coro, El Kid held his own and the others backed him up impeccably.

I want Tiempo Libre to leave the safe zone of re-arranging covers, because right now they have a solid, extremely tight sound but maybe need to risk a bit more to really explode. “Arroz con mango” is a step in this direction from what I heard at their show, and with Pututi’s and Pavel’s arrival the potential is definitely there. However, en vivo this group is a totally different story from their CDs. See them if you can. The energy never dropped and everybody danced until the very end. Tiempo Libre is timba with a jazz injection, funkified pero a lo cubano. Sirvió.

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