Tiempo Libre was on Dancing with the Stars last night. The musical performance starts at minute 4:30 in:
Tiempo Libre is from Havana by way of Miami, and manager Elizabeth Sobol-Gomez (married to keyboard/leader Jorge Gomez) is a good old girl from Greensboro. Elizabeth has tremendous business savvy, and has charted a bold, unconventional marketing path for this young timba band, whose singer, Joachin "El Kid" Diaz, once sang back up for NG La Banda. They've achieved two Grammy nominations, and have steered toward classical music and mainstream audiences by collaborating with classical orchestras and musicians. I mean seriously, who would have thought it intuitive to pair a timba band with James Galway, and most recently, Joshua Bell?
I don't mean to suggest that the classical/Cuban close embrace is in any way illegitimate; on the contrary. Gomez' father was a classical pianist, so he literally heard Bach while still in the cradle (the German composer's themes are the subject of TL's latest album, Bach in Havana). All these guys had intense classical training at conservatories in Cuba, which is commonplace for the island's expat timba--and jazz--musicians.
One could go further and point out that the fusion of European and non-European modes is the very essence of la música cubana, and fusion is habit-forming. I can't think of a more prolific, syncretic popular music tradition than Cuba's, which according to Juan de Marcos has over 150 different genres. Add to that the Cuban habit of survival through innovation, and consider the fact that many commercial avenues in the US music industry are currently blocked to Cuban styles (in favor of other regional styles of salsa or other genres such as pop and reggaeton), and the move is downright brilliant. Rather than trying to coax American consumers of Latin music into accepting timba, they're storming the barricades of mainstream taste via the jazz and classical music establishments.
But, how does it sound? For hardcore timba fans, there is definitely something there, even if Bach in Havana isn't as full of wall-to-wall, sexy bombast as, say, their Shanachie debut Arroz con Mango. Yosvany Terry and Paquito D'Rivera, representing two generations of great Cuban jazzmen, build the bridge from Miami to New York, with its incumbent artistic seriousness. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in Bach in Havana, although it is at least as much an intellectual listening experience as a dance spree.
In one my favorite marketing moves in history (perhaps aimed at winning over Cubanophiles who might be soft on the classical hybrid?), TL got their image on Cafe Bustelo espresso cans earlier this year. A few weeks ago, they were on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien playing their track with Joshua Bell from his new duets album, At Home With Friends. Now, Dancing with the Stars...I'm not a fan or follower of the show but I recognize its vast impact on the culture at large, and on the public perception of ballroom dancing.
I think it's fair to describe that kind of rise in mainstream exposure for a US-formed timba band as meteoric, and unprecedented. Whether the strategy will result in CD sales and "brand recogition" in the long term, I can't say, but my hat is off to an industrious and creative team behind a very energetic and authentic band. I've seen Tiempo Libre in NC numerous times and have never been disappointed.
In fact, the first live timba I ever heard in NC was Tiempo Libre, an unexpected find at the outdoor after party to a Poncho Sanchez show at Davidson College several years back. I walked across the campus quad, and walked faster as strains of "El Cuarto de Tula" in an energized timba arrangement reached my ears. What miracle is this? How did Los Van Van meet Buena Vista Social Club on the outskirts of Charlotte?
I don't know if anyone watching Dancing with the Stars had a similar epiphany last night, but anything that puts Cuban rhythms back into the daily diet of American television viewers (tip of the hat, Lucy and Desi) can't be a bad thing. Can't wait to see where Tiempo Libre turns up next.