In 1960, New York became the melting pot for Afro-Cuban rhythms by default. Cut off from La Habana, La Gran Manzana became the birthplace of salsa. Meanwhile, far from stagnating, Cubans behind the iron curtain (and especially since the end of the Cold War) have been in permanent musical revolution. Intensely trained in classical conservatories and inhaling African traditions on the streets, the musicians there are as creative as the mechanics who can turn a ’57 Chevrolet into a water taxi. But timba, the latest Cuban dance music invention, is not only about escapism. It’s a call and response between tradition and urban life. It’s a jerryrigged form of transport so airtight, it can hold anything–jazz, son, merengue, rock, bolero, rap, changui. Fueled by possibility, it can go anywhere the driver’s imagination dictates.
In some ways, the United States may be in the same position in 2005 as it was in 1960. Cut off from Cuba’s touring bands, it’s a chance for Cubanos in the States to take creative license and stir the musical melting pot once again. Miami-based Tiempo Libre steps up to the plate on June 30, bringing bona fide timba to Greensboro’s Eastern Music Festival ( www.easternmusicfestival.org ). The Shanachie recording artists just released their second CD, Arroz Con Mango. Translated from Spanish, our conversation with Tiempo Libre’s founder, composer and pianist Jorge Gomez delivers a forceful primer on the genre that is pushing salsa, son and jazz into new waters.
Independent Weekly: Were you born in Cuba or here?
Jorge Gomez: All of us [except one Venezuelan] were born in Cuba. We all studied together in Cuba. After graduation we left for different countries–Argentina, Spain, Mexico–and we met again in Miami by accident. I worked with Albita, others worked with Celia Cruz, others with Cachao. In the free time we had, we got together and jammed. Little by little we started to play parties, then we started charging, and from that moment on, we stopped having any free time.
How can you explain timba to somebody who hasn’t heard it before?
Timba resulted from the revolution of Cuban music. But day by day, Cuban music continues revolutionizing. Cuban music has mixed with hip hop, with rap, with many other things; if you don’t go to Cuba today, you have no idea how many. There is no defined genre for what has gone on. But basically, timba, what it is, is the mixture of jazz with Cuban son, but with new instruments like drums, keyboards and electronic instruments. In addition to that, the harmony is from jazz. Son is a very basic thing; jazz has much more aggressive harmonies. It gives a more aggressive tone to the music. That’s timba.
Irakere is a jazz group that was full of great musicians like Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval. Various musicians left, and [Irakere] started creating the same type of jazz but with a singer. And that’s timba. The greatest group that expressed it in Cuba was NG La Banda. They were the founders of timba. There was a moment when it was too aggressive for the Cuban public, they did not understand something so difficult. But now they want to hear it, now they don’t like to hear simple stuff. Now if you want to play salsa in Cuba it’s not the same, [people say] I want timba, I have grown accustomed to timba. It’s contemporary.
Are there other groups you count among your influences?
Many. Charanga Habanera, Paulito y su Elite, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, and including [Los] Van Van, even though Van Van is not a timba group. It’s charanga. But they’ve incorporated [timba] in their electronic keyboards, artistic arrangements; they are like a timbified charanga [“charanga timbistica”]. They use violins–that means that they come from the concept of charanga–but they have brass, they have trombones, so you don’t know what to call them.
Why is it called timba?
It’s a concept. Salsa was a name they applied to Cuban son, played by other people and with other people’s presentations, like the Puertoricans, the Venezuelans. So salsa means a mix of everything. OK, timba means the same thing, but timba is something outside the normal. For example, rice with timba, that’s a Cuban food, that means “with whatever.”
What type of food is that?
It’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten, because it’s anything and everything. It’s not anything specific, it’s whatever you want to put on it. Like mango, avocado, a little bit of chile and a little piece of chicken. It’s a piece of bread with anything–sweet guayaba, a piece of pork and a tomato. That’s called bread with timba. You can play a changui jazz, a bolero with son, a son with guaguanco–that is timba.
Like it says in [the Los Van Van song] “Esto Te Pone La Cabeza Mala.”
What are your songs about?
The original songs on the record tell the story of the everyday life of Cubans living in the United States, which is like a timba. You’re Cuban but you have to act like an American–speak English, watch the NBA, the Marlins. Everything is very good, but it seems a little strange to us at the same time. The customs are different, the food is different, we are between two worlds. That’s what the record’s about.
You’re also married to an American, your manager Elizabeth, but I think she’s more Cuban than American, right?
She’s also like a form of timba [laughs]. She was born in the United States but she feels like a Cuban. When you’re an American, or Russian, or Italian, and you discover your fascination for this type of music, no one can change your mind. I don’t know the reason for it, I imagine that it’s a psychological problem.
[Laughs] What a pleasant disease. Are there other bands playing timba in the United States, outside of Cuba?
Yes, there are about four really great timba bands here, but I mean really good. La Timba Loca from Boston, Habana NRG from Texas, Lisandro y su Tratado in New York, and us here in Miami.
I noticed that you like to teach the audience the chorus before you play a song. Is participation important in timba?
The most important thing about a performance by a timba band is to have good, good communication with the audience, whether it’s dancing or singing along with us.
It’s very easy, because the rhythm is very catchy. We don’t just have a great time, we teach people what this musical genre of timba is about. And they learn what timba is about, and everybody has a great time.
Tiempo Libre plays the Regency Room at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro June 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23. For more information, visit www.easternmusicfestival.org.