Fourteen years since its formation, Miami-based Tiempo Libre is at a point in its career that most up-and-coming bands dream about. Three Grammy nominations, worldwide recognition on stages and television, and several albums later, the group is in the midst of a promotional tour for its first release under Universal Music Latin Entertainment, Panamericano.
The journey of achieving freedom and fame since fleeing Cuba has played an essential role in forming the sound and style of Tiempo Libre, composed of Luis Beltran Castillo on flute and saxophone, Raúl Rodriguez on trumpet, Xavier Mili on lead vocals, Wilvi Rodriguez on bass, Israel Morales Figueroa on drums, and Leandro González on congas. All members came to the United States legally after leaving the island.
For founder Jorge Gómez, who is also the band's pianist and musical director, this high point in the band's career happens to coincide with the 15th anniversary of when he left the familiarity of his home and country for a new one — a move that has led to an exceedingly bright life.
So much of Tiempo Libre's music has been about the experiences of immigrants in the United States, but Panamericano focuses on embracing Miami's wonderful diversity.
"We have been living in Miami for 15 years," Gómez says. "We are part of Miami. We all in the band, we are citizens. So Miami now is the Cuba that we left before, because we have the same food, the same friends — the whole family is living here."
Gómez explains that the name Panamericano reflects the cosmopolitan community in Miami Beach.
"You walk for a block and you have a friend from Argentina, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, you name it," he says. "My neighborhood right now is the whole world in just one block.
"That's the influence you're gonna hear in the album. All those friends, all those cultures in one album, because in the other album, it's more about Cuba, about cha-cha-chá and songs about what we left in Cuba. And in this album, it's all about who is your friend in Miami Beach."
He wanted these cultures to be heard on Panamericano, so he invited some of those friends into the studio. Guest vocalists on the album include Puerto Rico's Jean Rodriguez, Mexican-American singer Frankie J, Dominican-American singer Yunel Cruz, Cuba's Descemer Bueno, and Venezuela's Luis Fernando Borjas.
Gómez credits Tiempo Libre's constant experimentation and versatility with helping the group stay afloat in a city saturated with Latin bands. But underneath it all, the culture, rhythms, and sounds of Cuba are what hold everyone together. His explanation for why he thinks Cuban music has such a grand reach: Cuba, with its variety of rhythms and sounds, is the mother of all islands in the Caribbean. Citing genres such as bolero, danzón, conga, and cha-cha, he says it's no wonder Cuba has so much diversity.
"Every Cuban who leaves Cuba, they bring with them all those rhythms, all those cultures. For them to have fun, they have to revive all those rhythms," he says.
"Every time you go to a Cuban house, it doesn't matter where he lives, you're gonna hear Cuban music. Yes, he'll put on Michael Jackson sometimes, but you're gonna hear Cuban music every day."
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As for the island itself, Gómez says the Cuba he left has slowly become a Cuba for which he no longer feels nostalgic. However, he believes the improved Cuba-U.S. relations will be good for Tiempo Libre.
"For the group, it's going to be better because that means we can go every place in Cuba and play for our people, for the people who saw us growing up," he says.
Panamericano was released on June 30, and is available on iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play, and Tiempolibremusic.com.