Jorge Gomez didn't call Tiempo Libre's newest album My Secret Radio just on a whim. There is a back story to the title that enforces the entire sense of musical exploration surrounding the Grammy-nominated Cuban music ensemble that performs at this weekend's Picnic With the Pops with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
It stems from the days when Gomez, Tiempo Libre's keyboardist, arranger, vocalist and music director, and his bandmates thirsted for sounds emanating from outside Havana, his homeland. Artistically reared in Russian-inspired conservatories, Gomez was versed in classical music and rhythmic Afro-Cuban grooves. But across the waters, on the shorelines of Miami, lived a vastly different music.
American songs and styles were forbidden on Cuban airwaves. So Gomez was left to his own devices — or a device. He jury-rigged a homemade radio and listened illicitly to the joyous but subversive music from the United States.
"We had to invent our own radio and antenna, really," Gomez said. "We went to the roof and had to wait until 1 a.m. to listen to even some of the music coming from Miami. We would spend the whole night recording the music onto cassettes.
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"We heard everything, from Chick Corea to Al Jarreau to Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind and Fire. The next day, we took that music back to our neighborhoods and had a big party. This wasn't just music for us. It was a whole new door to the world."
Since immigrating to Miami in 2000, Gomez has fashioned Tiempo Libre into one of the most established Cuban music groups working outside of Cuba. Its music regularly touches on its classical background and a wealth of Afro-Cuban inspirations, but the band's performance specialty is the Cuban style known as timba.
A harmonic hybrid with elements of mambo and jazz, timba also includes contemporary influences of funk and rock that fall outside of Cuban tradition. Timba is often viewed by some as an extension of salsa. But Gomez says there is one key difference.
"Salsa is for the dancer," he said. "Timba is for the musician who loves to dance. It's more sophisticated. If you go to a timba concert, you have two possibilities before you. You can hear the music or you can dance the music. But I guess you can also do both."
Tiempo Libre's classical heritage remains active as the band advances timba music to the masses. The ensemble's Grammy-nominated 2009 album, Bach in Havana, is an artful reimagining of Bach sonatas, preludes and fugues within settings of danzon, son and, of course, timba.
"Bach in Havana is, basically, the story of our lives in Cuba," Gomez said. "In Cuba, to be a musician, you have to pass classical training, a style of training that comes, really, from Russia. It's not like here in America, where you pay a private teacher and learn piano. Cuban training was very formal.
"Training at the conservatory meant playing classical music from 8 in the morning to 6 at night. But then we would go back to our neighborhoods and start playing Cuban music — the timba, the cha-cha-cha, the danzons — all these great Afro-Cuban rhythms. So our lives were a mix of these two worlds."
Bach in Havana also gave Gomez and Tiempo Libre the opportunity to record, on three tunes, with Paquito D'Rivera. A Cuban expatriate acknowledged as one of the world's most stylistically daring alto saxophonists, D'Rivera is an alumnus of the groundbreaking timba-inspired Cuban jazz ensemble Irakere.
"Paquito is amazing," Gomez said. "He is a genius. But he is also a very, very good person. To play with him, ... I mean, it's crazy. He is one of the great musicians in the world — him and (fellow celebrated Irakere alumni) Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdes. We grew up listening to their music. We were like students."
Gomez hopes to follow in D'Rivera's footsteps as a musical ambassador of his homeland to a steadily mounting North American fan base.
"That's our goal: to bring the Cuban music all around the United States. I mean, we transport our souls into another dimension when we are onstage. We just let it go with the music. So, yes, ambassadors of our culture, ... that's what we are."