Sometimes the airwaves wouldn’t cooperate, and they’d have to wait a few hours to break the law.
They couldn’t help it. They craved music, especially that being broadcast from Miami radio stations. They’d listen, record what they heard on casette tapes, then play it for their friends to hear the next day.
And their friends were always excited.
“Who is singing that?” they’d ask.
But no one knew. Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Chaka Khan and, yes, Earth, Wind and Fire — the names were foreign to them.
That isn’t the case these days. The seven members of Tiempo Libre can name everyone who sang those songs from a time when they’d have to climb to the highest rooftop at 1 a.m. and wait for the radio signal to reach them.
They were openly breaking the law, because it was a violation in Cuba to listen to American music. But they didn’t care. They, too, were musicians, classical musicians at that.
Not only was it against the law to listen to American music, but it was against school rules to play and perform traditional Cuban music. But that didn’t stop them.
There were times when they’d escape to the classroom at the farthermost part of campus and jam on an Afro-Cuban beat.
“We’d stand someone outside the door to watch for us,” Jorge Gómez. “He’d warn us when someone was coming, and we’d stop playing.”
They’d get kicked out of National Schools of Art in Havana, otherwise.
But they definitely won’t get kicked out of the Manship Theatre. On Wednesday, April 10, Tiempo Libre will bring its joyful performance of traditional Cuban music and Latin jazz to Baton Rouge.
Gomez laughed while speaking from his home in Miami. He’s not only the group’s pianist but its founder and music director.
He and the other group members have known each other since childhood. All were enrolled at the arts school, and all were there to train as classical musicians.
“We’re like family,” Gomez said. “After this I finish talking here, I will go to the trumpet player’s house and have a Cuban coffee, and we’ll talk about everything and nothing.”
Another laugh. It still amazes him how seven guys’ pursuit of music they loved has led to worldwide recognition. They’ve performed their music throughout the world. They’ve stood on stage with symphony orchestras and popular musicians.
They’ve even brought their music into classrooms, teaching students from the kindergarten to the college levels.
Now they’re bringing it to Baton Rouge.
This will be Tiempo Libre’s first trip to the capital city but not to Louisiana. The group has performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the past, as well as Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette.
“New Orleans has so many different styles of music,” he said. “I love going there and listening.”
And he’s always listening, just as he and his fellow group members did all those years ago in Cuba.
It’s not that they didn’t like or appreciate their classical training. They did. And they certainly didn’t abandon it.
Instead, they found a way to fuse it with timba, their joyous mix of high-voltage Latin jazz and the seductive rhythms of son — short for Cubano son, a style of music that originated in Cuba combining the structure and elements of Spanish canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin.
Maybe “happy” would be a more concise description, because every song Tiempo Libre plays is filled with joy. Add the groups’ constant smiles to the mix, and audience members can’t help walking away uplifted.
Check out the group’s performances at http://www.youtube.com if you have any doubt. And while there, discover Tiempo Libre’s mix of classical and timba through selections from its CD, Bach in Havana.
The CD was Tiempo Libre’s first for Sony Masterworks. The group released its second, My Secret Radio in 2011.
The title, of course, references those long ago nights when Gomez and his fellow group members would set up homemade antennas atop buildings and wait for them to pick up radio stations out of Miami.
“If it was raining, it didn’t matter,” he said. “We would wait.”
And later, after coming to the United States, Gomez found himself performing beside the names behind some of those nameless recordings.
“I performed with Earth, Wind and Fire in New York,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, do you want to come play with us?’ I couldn’t believe it. And we performed with Sting at his home in Italy. He’s a great guy and a great musician.”
But so are Tiempo Libre’s members. They love what they do.
They love it so much that they were willing to break the law to do it.
And now they’re sharing their love with the world.