When Jorge Gomez and his friends who make up Tiempo Libre were in school together in the 1980s at Cuba’s well-respected La ENA conservatory, their schedules were composed of polar opposites.
By day, they were all classically trained, spending untold hours mastering the discipline needed to conquer the Old World, Baroque style. It was illegal to even listen to American songs on the radio. Russian instructors didn’t exactly encourage appreciation for Cuba’s own rich legacy of energetic music.
Nights were very, very different.
“At night we went to clubs and danced to the Cuban music there,” Gomez said. “We lived with both of those worlds inside us.”
These days, those two worlds have collided in an increasingly artistic and commercial success. Gomez is band director for Tiempo Libre, the group comprised of those longtime friends from Havana, and their music is their story.
“We never really thought about making a band,” recalls Gomez. “We stayed friends and did things together — baseball, dominoes, but never talked about becoming a band.”
Even after the friends arrived in Miami and began their careers in music, it did not occur to them to play together regularly. Individually, they worked with significant performers in Latin music including Albita, Cachao, Arturo Sandoval, NG La Banda, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Isaac Delgado
“We all had to make a living,” Gomez said.
However, the band members had a strong desire to play their own music and eventually, about eight years ago, they began to play together in their free time. Tiempo Libre, “free time,” is what emerged from the seven friends finally getting together to explore and celebrate their own artistic roots and to become the nation’s first all-Cuban timba band.
“When we talked about it, we knew it was going to be hard because it was really a new kind of music in the United States,” Gomez said.
The evening features the Miami theatrical premiere performance of their Bach in Havana, a salsa-meets-classical-music mashup based on the Grammy-nominated CD of the same name.
The talented collaboration worked. Miami-based Tiempo Libre has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, has performed all over the world and has an international following. In an über-pop-culture crossover, they have even performed on Dancing with the Stars.
This week, they are performing for a hometown audience. The new Miami On Stage project, which regularly features local performing artists in Miami Beach’s North Beach neighborhood, presents Tiempo Libre at the Byron Carlyle Theater on Saturday, April 3. The evening features the Miami theatrical premiere performance of the group’s Bach in Havana, a salsa-meets-classical-music mashup based on the Grammy-nominated CD of the same name. The Miami On Stage series is produced by FUNDarte, one of South Florida’s most adventurous and successful presenters of alternative culture, especially with a Latin flavor.
“We presented them for the first time in Miami and we continue to want to nurture their careers,” said FUNDarte Executive Director Ever Chavez. “The last time we presented them, it was very successful. They have a great reputation all over the world. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Chavez said Bach in Havana is challenging for audiences who might typically prefer one of the other styles of music, but challenging in a good way.
“People who like Cuban music don’t necessarily like classical music and people who like classical music don’t necessarily like Cuban music,” Chavez said. “Both audiences are going to wonder how it sounds. They will be surprised and excited. It’s not just salsa, conga… some is very quiet and moody.”
Gomez feels the merger of styles is only natural in that it reflects the lives the musicians have lived. It combines traditional elements with classical and also new American influences.
The idea to combine musical styles actually occurred in contract discussion with Sony.
“Timba is not a big seller, so in talking with them, we asked what they thought about merging with classical music and they liked the idea,” Gomez said. “It’s working.”
In fall 2008, Tiempo Libre brought its dynamic Afro-Cuban beat to leading flutist Sir James Galway’s album O’Reilly Street, released by the RCA Red Seal label. The album features an exciting new Latin jazz arrangement of music from the Claude Bolling Jazz Suites including “Baroque and Blue,” as well as a timba take on Bach’s “Badinerie” and a number of vibrant new compositions, all by Tiempo Libre’s musical director and pianist Jorge Gomez. The result is rich in the traditions of multiple genres, authentic yet emotionally seductive, transcending the borders between classical, jazz and Cuban music.
Following up being named “Best Latin Band 2008” by the Miami New Times, Tiempo Libre brought a true Cuban experience to its American hometown of Miami with the interactive musical production Miami Libre. The show premiered at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in July 2008, featuring a cast of 25, including Tiempo Libre’s seven members. Miami Libre, based on the band’s collective immigrant experience, is told through English and Spanish narrative, sizzling music and explosive dance.
Tiempo Libre’s popularity is international. In summer 2002, at their Ravinia Festival debut opening for Celia Cruz, Tiempo Libre dazzled a crowd of more than 12,000 people. They were quickly re-engaged by Ravinia for summer 2003, where they shared a bill with Aretha Franklin and performed before an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000. Summer 2003 also included performances at the new Heineken Jazz Festival in Hua Hin, Thailand, where Tiempo Libre was the undeniable sensation of the festival. Return trips to Asia have included sold-out shows at Hong Kong’s Kwai Tsing Theatre; at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, the glorious concert hall at the foot of the famous twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and at the 2005 Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. Since that time, the group’s busy touring schedule in the United States has included performances at Miami’s JVC Jazz Festival, Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., SOB’s in New York City, Lincoln Center, Celebrate Brooklyn, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Festival International de Louisiane, Rochester International Jazz Festival, Society of the Performing Arts in Houston, Kimmel Center, Orange County Performing Arts Center, California Center for the Arts, New Haven Jazz Festival, California World Fest, Lotus Music Festival, New York’s River-to-River Festival at the South Street Seaport, as well as the Colorado, Interlochen, Green and Eastern music festivals. August 2005 brought Tiempo Libre’s European debut. Among the highlights of that tour was Tiempo Libre’s performance at the closing concert of the new Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy, where the band wowed a sold-out house. Subsequent tours have brought sold-out houses in Italy, Greece and Turkey.
The band’s debut album release, Arroz con Mango, received tremendous attention in the press and was featured in numerous national publications including Latin Beat, Hispanic Magazine, Jazziz and American Airlines’ American Way Magazine.
In spring 2007, Tiempo Libre embarked upon another exciting project, the creation of a new work — Rumba Sinfónica — for symphony orchestra and Cuban band. The composition, a collaboration with the highly respected Venezuelan classical composer Ricardo Lorenz, was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the Ravinia Festival and the Festival of the Arts Boca. Since Rumba Sinfónica’s premiere in Minneapolis in November 2007, Tiempo Libre has performed the work with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Portland (Maine) Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.
Bach in Havana is a result of a most recent evolution for the acclaimed musicians.
“People don’t understand what we’re doing at first but then they think that it’s incredible,” Gomez said. “They see a whole symphony orchestra and wonder how they are going to dance to this. Later they see how the music changes and that they can dance.”
Despite Tiempo Libre’s popularity around the United States and the world, the band’s particular style and story told though their music is strongly appealing to South Florida audiences.
“It’s quintessential Miami for those of us who appreciate the blend of cultures we have here,” said Miami’s T.S. Albright. “If you appreciate what we have here in South Florida, you can appreciate Tiempo Libre.”
The Tiempo Libre concert on Saturday, April 3, begins at 8 p.m. at the Byron Carlyle Theater, 500 71st St., Miami Beach. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 students (under 25) & seniors (over 65) with ID. Tickets may be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster at ticketmaster and by phone 800-745-3000 (service charges apply). Tickets are also available in-person at the Byron Carlyle the day of show and in advance at the Colony Theatre box office (1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach), Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. (no service charges). A limited number of $15 discounted general admission tickets are also available for 33141 zip code buyers with ID in-person at both theater box offices only. More information about the Miami On Stage series and the upcoming Tiempo Libre concert can be found online at fundarte or by contacting FUNDarte at fundarte or 305-316-6165.