Jorge Gomez is vacationing in Mexico when the Georgia Straight reaches him on his cellphone, this in a roundabout way proving that the Cuban expat is enjoying the American dream. To get a sense of what that means, consider where the founder of the Grammy-nominated group Tiempo Libre comes from. Today, the singer-keyboardist is based out of Miami. Growing up, though, he was a world away from the freedoms that come from living in the United States.
As anyone who’s been to Havana, Cuba, knows, travelling abroad freely isn’t one of the perks that have traditionally come with living on the communist-controlled island. Looking back, Gomez remembers life being anything but idyllic growing up. Something as simple as turning on the radio was considered subversive if you loved broadcast-from-America pop music.
“America was an untouchable dream,” Gomez says with a laugh from Mexico. “It was prohibited to listen to American music in Cuba. Even if they caught you listening to the Beatles, you would be in jail. But I’d go to the roof of my house, make an antenna, and then start trying to get signals from the United States.”
When he wasn’t illegally soaking up everything from Michael Jackson and Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock and Chaka Khan, Gomez was getting a classical conservatory education in Cuba. When classes were out, he would continue his studies on the streets of Havana, where outdoor jam sessions often stretch late into the night.
“You go to school from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then, when you go back to your neighbourhood, it’s a party—every day,” Gomez says. “You start drinking rum, and then comes the music.”
His various influences would eventually come together to make Tiempo Libre, which you’ll find filed under timba at your local bricks-and-mortar record stores. Heavily percussive and horn-powered, timba was birthed in the working-class neighbourhoods of Cuba, with musicians injecting salsa and rumba music with elements of Afrobeat, classic soul, hip-hop, and good old-fashioned American rock ’n’ roll. All of those come together on Tiempo Libra’s latest, My Secret Radio.
One of the initial challenges for Gomez was convincing North America that the average Cuban is more in tune with timba than, say, the Buena Vista Social Club. That’s no longer a problem today, as the band’s three past Grammy nominations confirm. Gomez notes that America has been everything he’s dreamed of, and not just because he’s lucky enough to be enjoying Mexican vacations. His goal now is to make sure that those who show up to see Tiempo Libre have as much fun as he’s having, something that he notes requires some flexibility on the part of the band.
“When we do jazz festivals, of course we’re going to play a lot of jazz,” he says. “If we play a concert hall with a symphony, you’re going to see a lot of classical. For gigs like the one we are doing in Vancouver, we mix everything: a little Latin jazz, some classical, a traditional song from Cuba, and then originals from our CDs. You wanna listen? You can listen. You wanna dance? You can dance. And if you really want to enjoy yourself? Well, get up on-stage and play with us.”
Tiempo Libre plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday (March 9).