Tiempo libre roughly translates to "free time" in English. It's a luxury that Jorge Gomez, pianist and director of the Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre, usually doesn't have. Even so, he made sure to arrive fifteen minutes before a scheduled interview with New Times at the Segafredo café on Lincoln Road and called this reporter twice to make sure it was still on.
But Gomez probably wasn't being punctual simply out of eagerness to get good press. Tiempo Libre constantly tours, and the band was in town for only a few weeks before heading back out on the road. This summer the group will play at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; Festival International de Louisiane in Rochester, New York; and the Society of Performing Arts in Houston. In August the band makes its European debut at the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy. In fact Tiempo Libre plays abroad more often than at home.
That work ethic is paying off. In January the bandmates signed a multirecord deal with Shanachie Entertainment and are scheduled to release their second album, Arroz con Mango, May 24. (The first, Timbiando, was released independently last year.) Tiempo Libre's growing reputation as one of the top timba bands in the U.S. is a primary reason why its seven members -- all-star players who have separately played with artists as renowned as Albita, Cachao, Issac Delgado, NG La Banda, and Arturo Sandoval -- have eschewed their former lives as sidemen. "It's a question of faith," said Gomez of the band members' decisions to break out on their own as Tiempo Libre.
Their faith was well-grounded. Six of the band's members -- Gomez, vocalist Joaquin Diaz, percussionist Leandro Gonzalez, bassist Tebelio "Tony" Fonte, trumpeter Julio Diaz, and drummer Fernando Pina -- are childhood friends with world-class music degrees from Cuba's best conservatories. They knew that when the traditional son hype sparked by the Buena Vista Social Club died down, the world would be ready for something even more dynamic.
"Many years ago in Cuba, the son was played everywhere, but the people who played it weren't musicians. They learned at the beach and in the mountains because they were simple melodies. Our generation studied music under a very heavy regimen of harmony, rhythm, singing, and dance, so when you got done, you didn't conform to something so easy," said Gomez. The result was timba, a hyperactive combination of Latin jazz and salsa that pits bass rhythms against a complicated countertempo.
While Gomez says he shies away from politics, he often expresses his appreciation for what he's learned from both the communist and capitalist worlds. In Cuba he learned to be disciplined. He entered the National School of the Arts as a young child and would often study nearly twelve hours a day. After he graduated at age 21, he served three years of mandatory military duty in Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. That compliance with the regime made it easier for him to defect, because he certainly didn't look like a counterrevolutionary. Besides, who wanted to go to a poverty-stricken country like Guatemala?
But that's exactly where he began to make a name for himself. "I remember the first time I gave a piano class and got paid for it. I pulled the cash from my pocket and bought myself a big juicy steak sandwich from a street vendor. I couldn't believe that I could get paid to work doing something I loved," he recalled of his experiences in Guatemala City.
In the Nineties, while Gomez was traveling throughout Central America playing with his timba group Habanos and with world-class salsa stars such as Willy Colon, his childhood colleagues and future Tiempo Libre bandmates were making similar discoveries teaching music and touring with headlining salsa and jazz artists in Germany, Canada, and the U.S.
By 2001 their yearning to be closer to their cultural roots had drawn them all to Miami, where the six friends reunited and began to experiment with the rebellious sounds they had used to entertain themselves between classes back in Havana. With solid education and careers under their belts, they decided to take their timba party on the road by founding Tiempo Libre, picking up Venezuelan flautist Eduardo Quintana along the way.
"At first people wanted to throw our music in the garbage because they didn't know what it was," Gomez said, noting that the success of energetic Latin jazz groups such as Chucho Valdez's Irakere in the Nineties helped open ears and minds. "Now everyone wants to hear timba because they're bored with salsa. We are taking advantage of the fury, playing in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong -- places we never imagined that we'd be playing."
Still, Asia's incredible reception to timba doesn't come as much of a surprise to Gomez. One of the best salsa bands in the world, Orquesta de la Luz, is comprised of a group of Japanese musicians who studied with him in Havana. Cuba has that effect on people. "They were only there for like five months and they came out jamming. Cubans have a way of transmitting energy through music," Gomez remembered.
But just in case the good old boys in the American heartland need a little psychological preparation for the spicy sounds hitting their eardrums and sending electric jolts through their bodies, Tiempo Libre sometimes offers music "clinics" for university students.
"When we play, we usually start with the instrumental so that people don't get too much of an energetic shock. Then we teach people to feel what we feel when we're playing for them," said Gomez. What those students should feel, he explained, is a massive stress release, which is how these musicians felt as jamming helped them mentally escape the economic and political hardships on the island.
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That means veering away from protest songs and melancholy choruses. There wasn't room for that in Cuba and there isn't room for that in the band either.
"Everyone writes songs about how much they miss Havana, but nobody writes songs of welcome to the city which has taken us in," said Gomez. So he wrote the celebratory "Ven pa Miami" ("Come to Miami"). And, in line with good traditional Cuban humor, there are plenty of subliminal messages about swinging one's skirt to the beat. "You know, like on 'La Cosa' ["The Thing"] ... you know, show me the thing, show me the little smile, ay mami, I'm dying to see that little smile," he said with a sideways grin.
As for the musicians they left behind to follow their dreams, he said, "They were mad at first, but they understood ... the world is big and there's lots of room for other styles of music, so I keep applauding them, knowing someone's also applauding for me.
"People who have faith and who want to enlighten the United States will struggle against all odds to teach this country of the existence of the timba, just like Celia Cruz and Selena did with their genres. You never saw Celia Cruz making a living singing rancheros."