When he was teenager growing up in Havana, Jorge Gómez, director and keyboard player for the Miami-based timba band Tiempo Libre, would often climb to his rooftop in the wee hours of the morning. With his boombox rigged to a homemade antenna fashioned from metal clothes hangers and aluminum foil, carefully hidden from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors and government inspectors, he listened to the latest tunes beaming out of radio stations from across the Florida Straits. Like many Cubans, Jorge and his bandmates were proud heirs to the island’s fertile music culture but, at the same time, intensely curious about what was going on elsewhere in the music world, especially in the United States.
Perched on that Havana rooftop, the radio was not just a treasured source of unknown music but a dream machine. “We were teenagers,” Jorge recalls, “and it was very hard to listen to that music without fantasizing about what it would be like to live in the U.S., to be a musician there, to have a whole new existence in a place that was free and open.” “In a way,” he adds, “those were the moments that filled us with yearning, desire and the strength that it took to leave it all – families, friends, a country, a life – behind to pursue those dreams.” Now, after ten years of performing in the U.S. and playing a leading role in the development of timba, a heavily percussive- and horn-driven Cuban dance music (música bailable), it’s likely that Tiempo Libre’s latest timba is among the tunes beaming through one of those secret, rooftop radios somewhere in Havana.
The group’s new album My Secret Radio, a reference to those clandestine radio transmissions that marked the group’s adolescent years on the island, releases on May 3rd. Following on the heels of three Grammy nominations, the band’s fifth studio album chronicles both sides of the immigrant experience – from secret radio sessions which fueled dreams of life in America to the perplexities of starting life in a new country. If there are any standout tracks on the new album then the infectious “San Antonio” is surely the best contender. In fact, if it wasn’t for the lyrics, which pay homage to San Antonio, Texas and its people, who enthusiastically embraced the band several years ago, this hip-shaking timba sounds like it could have just as easily been the latest EGREM recording to blast from the makeshift, heavily amplified soundsystem of some passing Lada or inner-city solar in Central Havana.
Tiempo Libre is the first all-Cuban, full-time timba band in the United States. Despite achieving a modest amount of success, very few outside of Tiempo Libre’s inner circle are aware of the fact that some rather absurd expectations and stereotypes about what Cuban music is supposed to sound like have actually prevented them from playing at certain venues across the country. As émigré musicians playing a contemporary style of Cuban dance music that few Americans know anything about let alone understand, the band has encountered the same prejudice time and time again. On countless occasions over the past ten years, Tiempo Libre has been repeatedly snubbed by promoters who, after learning the group is based in Miami, claim to only be interested in presenting “real” Cubans and “authentic” Cuban music.
The reasons for this musical myopia are complicated and far from clear. Certainly, the U.S. embargo and travel ban has played a role. Cuba is taboo. And like all people, places, and things that are officially off-limits, it occupies a special category that possesses its own strange power and allure. Add to this typical North American and European images of Cuba as a kind of socialist theme-park, where the relics and ruins of a more romantic and nostalgic capitalist past are everywhere on display, and, voilà, the aura thickens. This is perhaps why Cuban musicians living on the island enjoy a certain mystique that those living abroad do not.
But this is only a partial answer. There’s also what we might call the Buena-Vista-Social-Club-effect. Given the enormous global popularity of this World Circuit/Nonesuch Records release, which featured contemporary recordings of the “golden age” of Cuban music, a period beginning around the 1930s and extending through the 1950s, American listeners have wrongly assumed that this is what “real” Cuban music is supposed to sound like. Never mind that while many North Americans and Europeans were discovering, often for the first time, such classic as “El Cuarto de Tula,” Cubans, “real” Cubans, were tuning their radios to stations and flocking to concerts featuring a new genre of urban dance music known as timba. Buena Vista Social Club was considered old people’s music; timba, by contrast, was the hot new music of the moment.
Timba began primarily as an Afro-Cuban, working-class dance music. It is a heavily percussion- and horn-driven, urban style of salsa-like music that incorporates a broad range of cosmopolitan influences. Although firmly entrenched in Cuban styles such as rumba, son and even batá, timba also draws on Afro-Caribbean and Latin American dance music, elements of American rock (as evidenced by the inclusion of a drum-set, along with timbales and congas, and sometimes an electric guitar), and African American funk, jazz and hip hop. Together, these global influences are blended into a quintessentially Cuban musical stew that not only rubs against foreign stereotypes of what makes the country’s music “authentic” but also provoked friction back home. Timba’s contentious lyrical content and graphic dance movements have, over the years, riled Cuban officials and attracted a great deal of both controversy and censorship.
The story of timba’s emergence and establishment as contemporary Cuba’s preeminent dance music is full of irony. In many ways, timba has exposed a number of the normally concealed tensions and contradictions that have come to define contemporary Cuban society. Timba was born in precarious times, during the so-called “Special Period,” which began in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, literally drying up billions of dollars in foreign subsidies overnight, provoking an economic crisis that challenged the status quo. Everyday life became a constant struggle as families searched for ever more inventive ways to make ends meet. Gawking foreign tourists flooded the streets of the capital, displaying a leisurely lifestyle natives could only entertain in their dreams. Hustling and other illicit economic activities became a popular survival strategy. A local form of conspicuous consumption that Cubans call especulación became emblematic of urban youth culture. Timba quickly became the voice of these uncertain times and a symbol of cosmopolitan desire that went against the grain of revolutionary ideology and morality.
As the vibrant sound of the inner-city streets, timba was more than music; it was a social chronicle of sex, money, and everyday life in the marginal black barrios of Havana. Whereas revolutionary ideology stressed a unified national culture, implementing policies that would supposedly lead to the erasure of social divisions based on gender, race, and class, timba, by contrast, celebrates black racial pride, machismo, and sexuality. In a country where overt political critique could land you in jail, timba cleverly subverted official discourse by flouting the bare realities and raw truths of the streets. Timba exalted the inner-city solar, often disparaged as an urban nest of crime and debauchery, as the privileged source of popular culture, creativity, and resilience. It embraced an image of the black male not as a productive worker but as a source of sensual pleasure. During timba “breakdowns,” males churned their hips in a rollicking sexual motion and women performed a frenetic dance called the tembleque, an erotic tremor consisting of rapid-fire thrusts of the hips and chest. The music also challenged official discourse in other ways. Timba, for instance, openly embraced a consumer lifestyle and advocated for international travel and transnational relations. In sum, timba was, and is, a far cry from the backwards looking, nostalgic music foreign audiences have come to expect from Cuba since Buena Vista Social Club. Timba represented not memories of a romantic capitalist past but the contemporary pulse of a nation in the midst of change.
A much more global style than previous Cuban musical genres, timba just doesn’t conform to foreign audiences and their expectations a safe and quaint ensemble playing maracas, bongos, and tres guitar. Timba is high-voltage, hard-edged dance music that doesn’t sound anything like traditional son music or Puerto Rican mainstream salsa. Its open exaltation of vernacular culture and sensuality violates North American and European stereotypes about Cuba’s old world charm and chivalry.
Over the past ten years, Tiempo Libre has struggled to break through these naïve expectations and stereotypes. Recently, I had the chance to put a few questions to Jorge Gómez about Tiempo Libre’s ten-year career here in the U.S. and their new album My Secret Radio. What follows are excerpts from that interview.
How did you and the other band members initially deal with being rejected by U.S. promoters for not being “real” Cubans playing “authentic” Cuban music?
At first it was very painful. Particularly because, as an exile, you never feel more Cuban than when you have left and can never go back. You hold on tightly to those things that define you, define your “Cuban-ness”. So, for someone to think that we were somehow less Cuban than those still on the island felt hurtful and misguided. With time, we began to understand a little more why people had these ideas…that it came from a lack of understanding about Cuba today due to the prohibitions of travel to Cuba…that many Americans, even highly educated ones, hang onto very dated, nostalgic notions of Cuba that have been fueled by myths and movies, not by direct encounters with real Cubans and the reality of modern-day Cuba. It would be as absurd as having someone accuse you of not being a real American because you didn’t wear polyester, eat Velveeta cheese, live in a subdivision and watch Ozzie and Harriett. So, gradually, we began to be able to laugh about it. But, even now, that laugh is tinged with sadness.
The other thing that was baffling to us was the fixation with the Buena Vista Social Club-era music. It is certainly wonderful music, and we draw on that tradition as one of our inspirations, but it would be equivalent to equating “American music” with Andy Williams or Tony Bennett – and forgetting about what has happened in the 21st Century, what is happening now. People who flock to BVSC – and promoters who clamor to continue presenting traditional son – don’t seem to understand that virtually no one in Cuba (except for tourists) listens to that music any more. They don’t know that timba is what the younger generation listen to. These same promoters who pride themselves on presenting the newest, the hippest when it comes to American music seem content to present Cuban music which is a historic/folkloric, not the living, breathing music of today.
Unfortunately, because of the censorship in Cuba and the lack of open channels to American (and international) influence, the music-making on the island is much like a hot-house flower. Even the timba traditions are not as robust as they were before; not evolving the way they might in a more open cultural landscape. For me, some of the best Cuban music being made today is happening in the USA, where you have so many great, fabulously trained Cuban musicians who immigrated and are organically mixing their music with the new sounds and influences they encounter. In order to compete in the US scene, one has to keep the bar raised high all the time…and that gives a creative and artistic edge to what you do.
What makes timba “Cuban”?
Well, two things make timba Cuban. One is the basic rhythms – guaguanco, son, etc – those underlying Afro-Cuban beats that give all Cuban dance music its distinctive flavor. But the other thing about it that makes it Cuban is that timba, too, is a music that is a result of the mixture of a lot of different cultures. Just like the son emerged from the collision of the African and the European, peppered with the guajiro traditions, I like to say that timba is Chick Corea meets Buena Vista Social Club all played with the virtuosity of a Juilliard School grad. It’s traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms mixed with jazz harmonies, then spiced up according to one’s taste with seasonings of funk, hip hop, rock, etc. Timba is the most cosmopolitan of Cuban forms…complex, sophisticated, incorporating styles and sounds and textures that come from outside of the island. It’s one of the reasons I have always believed that timba has a future outside of Cuba (despite the predictions of many nay-sayers). Let me state that a different way …the future of timba is outside of Cuba. Only outside of Cuba can timba expand, evolve and reinvigorate itself. Like jazz did, on its route from New Orleans to Chicago to New York…and beyond.
Do you actively keep in touch with the timba scene on the island?
We continue to be passionately interested in what’s going on in Cuba, first and foremost in the music/timba scene. Several of our members go to Cuba on a very regular basis and they come back with reports and recordings of what’s going on there. In addition we are always checking out videos from performances that the Cuban groups are giving abroad that get posted on the internet. There’s definitely some good stuff going on there. Right now the most interesting is Havana de Primera. But what is interesting about them is that, of all the Cuban timba groups, they sound most “American”!
How has Tiempo Libre managed to achieve a modest amount of success in the U.S. while other Cuban musicians, who were popular on the island, have languished after arriving here?
There are a number of factors here. One is that the members of Tiempo Libre are extremely disciplined …. both musically as well as personally and professionally. When you are touring and playing concerts, particularly in the Anglo market, you have to be punctual and professional in your dealings. You have to understand the audiences you play for and gear the repertoire and sound levels to their tastes. You can play a great concert, but if you are difficult to work with otherwise, promoters will not invite you back. We’ve also always adopted a long term view, knowing that things would take time and sacrifice. Unfortunately, so many Cuban musicians arrive with that “streets paved with gold” mentality, imagining that success is just going to fall into your lap. Or worse, there are musicians who had a certain name in Cuba who arrived in the US thinking they deserved a career here, not realizing you have to earn it, starting from zero – and maintain it. Either way, we knew from early on that it was going to take patience, hard work and sacrifice…and we have never taken any tiny amount of success we have had for granted.
In addition, all the members of the band were chosen because of their talent, training and versatility. In Tiempo Libre, the bass player, the conga player and the pianist (me!) all have to be able to play their instrument and sing coro at the same time (not to mention, all the while, dancing). In addition, the members have classical training, as well as traditional Cuban and jazz chops. So, our musical range is quite wide. That is what has enabled us to not only create our own unique Cuba timba sound, but also collaborate with symphony orchestras, classical soloists like Joshua Bell and Sir James Galway, as well as create Family and children’s shows, co-create a musical, and many other things. This kind of versatility has given us a much wider audience than Cuban bands who mainly stick to dance sets in clubs. Let’s face it, we would never have appeared on the Tonight Show or Live from Lincoln Center playing straight up timba. But what we did play (Para Ti and Tu Conga Bach) was as Cuban and true to our musical selves as Arroz con Mango.
(L-R: Bernardo Valdez, Jorge Gomez, Pedro Luis Ferrar, Jose Antonio, Osvaldo Pegudo & Marino Villar)
“Havana’s Timba: A Macho Sound for Black Sex,” Ariana Hernandez-Reguant. In the edited volume, Globalization and Race (Duke Univ Press, 2006).