Attendees at this year’s Ventura Music Festival will be able to immerse themselves in a jaw-dropping range of musical traditions from around the globe and across the decades — during just one performance. Improvisational jazz, Cuban dance music and Bach’s greatest hits will all be performed during the same foot-stomping set, courtesy of renowned Cuban-via-Miami group Tiempo Libre.
As the first all-Cuban timba band in the United States, the group brings unmatched authenticity to this style of Cuban dance music (which is reminiscent of salsa, but with the addition of keyboards, additional percussion and complex improvisation). Its polyrhythmic, percussive sound promises listeners a unique glimpse into both the Cuba of its youth and its long-running musical traditions. But Tiempo Libre also somersaults through a dizzying array of international influences that mirror its members’ own fascinating personal histories.
The band’s seven members — all childhood friends — grew up in an environment that was, musically, both restrictive and enriching. All attended Cuba’s prestigious, strict, Russian-style musical conservatories for 15 years, spending long hours studying classical music. “We studied Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt and Mozart from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” recalled Jorge Gómez, the group’s musical director and pianist.
But their education came at a price: they were prohibited from listening to local strains of popular music, whose African elements were seen as culturally damaging outside influences, despite Cuba’s rich African heritage. Still, that hardly stopped the rebellious and musically adventurous teenagers from learning their country’s most danceable traditions. “After 6 p.m.,” Gómez told VCReporter, “you’d go back to your neighborhood and you’d do your homework, and then learn Cuban rhythms: cha-cha -cha, son, rumba, conga.”
Popular music from America and Europe was even more dangerous than traditional dance beats in a Cuba that saw pop and rock as politically subversive symbols of its capitalist foes. But long after the sun went down, the future members of Tiempo Libre risked the threat of expulsion, and even prison, as they tuned in to stations from the United States to satisfy their desire for new music.
“It’s crazy, but by night,” Gómez said, “we’d go to the roof and wait until 1 a.m., when all the radio stations in Cuba stopped broadcasting.” With homemade antennae made from wire hangers and salvaged tinfoil, the friends would pick up American stations from hundreds of miles away. “We’d listen to Chaka Khan; Cool Keith; Earth Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder . . . so we always had a mix of things in our heads: classical, Cuban and American.”
Gómez said that his musical influences have always been in flux, although Earth, Wind & Fire remains his all-time favorite. “My very first influences were jazz.” He learned every jazz song he could, and was especially influenced by American jazz pianist Chick Corea. “Then I started listening to Cuban music. Then I started listening to rock — AC/DC, Rush. Then I changed, and started listening to hip-hop! All my life I have been changing.”
In part, the freedom to change and experiment with these diverse styles as professional musicians helped prompt the friends’ journeys to the United States. “The reason we moved to the U.S. was to see this dream come true,” Gómez said. “And we have.” Indeed: the group counts three Grammy nominations and a deal with Sony Masterworks among its accolades, and has toured and performed at festivals all over the world, including The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.
Even more valuable than artistic and commercial success, though, is that Gómez has found a place to call home. While some band members visit Cuba regularly to see their friends and family members, Gómez has everything he needs right here. “I get to live in wonderful Miami Beach. I have all my friends living here, all my family — it’s the same as Havana for me.”
Gómez started Tiempo Libre in Miami in 2001, after reconnecting with his childhood friends from Cuba, who found their own paths to the United States independently. All had busy careers in the Latin music industry, touring and recording with artists such as Albita, Arturo Sandoval and Isaac Delgado, and came together to practice during their precious free time. (“Tiempo libre” translates to “free time.”)
The transition from the Cuban to American music scene wasn’t without difficulty, though. “It’s a challenge,” says Gómez. “You can play American music, but never that well, not like an American. And when you go to a Latin club, and you see Americans playing Cuban music, you know they’re not from Cuba. It’s the same when you see a Cuban trying to play rock or hip-hop. But with a lot of studying, rehearsing and time, you get better.”
You won’t hear any deficiencies in Tiempo Libre’s music, though, even in songs influenced by American styles. According to Gómez, that’s “because it’s a mix, not a copy of the original.” The Cuban rhythms, he says, drive the songs even when the melodies are inspired by American music.
That blend is particularly apparent on Tiempo Libre’s latest album, My Secret Radio, billed as a tribute to the voices of American pop singers that the group’s members risked so much to listen to in their teenage years. It’s not the group’s first foray into blending musical traditions. On the Grammy-nominated Bach in Havana, Tiempo Libre melded Bach’s staccato melodies to driving Cuban rhythms. Gómez enjoys the challenge of blending musical traditions. “When you hear the sound we play and the different rhythms, you’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s so weird!’ But it’s good. Now you can dance cha-cha-cha to Bach.”
While the lure of its Bach- and American pop-inspired sounds might attract audiences previously unfamiliar with timba and other Afro-Cuban music, the group also takes a more hands-on approach to educating the public about Cuba’s musical heritage. “We also teach a lot of classes. We go to universities and colleges and even kindergartens, teaching students about Cuban music and Cuban culture: how to dance salsa, how to speak Spanish, the cuisine that we eat, the story of our island, how to play our music and how to feel like a Cuban.” The interest people take in Cuban music, says Gómez, is incredibly gratifying.
One of the people whose interest they captured is Ventura Music Festival Artistic Director Nuvi Mehta. He’s been impressed with the group’s range, technical prowess and fiery performances for years, and even considered booking them for his first run as artistic director back in 2003. Nearly a decade later, he says that Tiempo Libre is now famous enough to perform in the festival alongside such well-known luminaries as the Emerson String Quartet.
With Mehta’s background in classical music, he was especially taken with Bach in Havana. “They take actual themes from Bach and use them, creating congas and cha-cha-chas out of those themes. It works incredibly well, and it’s amazing to hear.” It’s a perfect fit for the festival, which Mehta says is “very big on crossover” in all its forms.
“I believe in music,” says Mehta. “There’s no classical versus jazz or pop. I’ve always believed that, saying that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. I happen to like pop artists who have deep technical roots — technical gifts and training on their instruments. When I find a group like this that really has the training and does popular music, I get very excited about that.” Tiempo Libre, he says, is definitely one of those groups. “You feel their musicianship right down to the bone.”
It has become increasingly popular for classical artists to experiment with popular music and traditional music from around the globe, but Tiempo Libre turns that equation on its head. “This is the genuine article,” says Mehta. “A lot of artists who are trained in classical music turn to pop music and world music, they perform it and make a study of it, and it can be a great performance. But you still know you’re hearing a classical ensemble — you’re hearing classical music first. This is different. Tiempo Libre are popular artists and they do pop music. But they have classical training and expertise on their instruments. I don’t think anyone in the audience is going to feel like this is a classical concert.”
What they will feel, though, is a performance that’s “hot and upbeat,” with upbeat dance rhythms that should appeal to everyone. “It’s very, very rhythmic, very great horn sounds; they’ve got a great drummer and a wonderful trumpet player — all of these guys are amazing players. Even when they use Bach’s melodies, they’ve picked the upbeat, vibrant, rhythmic stuff,” says Mehta.
In other words, the audience will want to get up and move. “They should be prepared to dance, and enjoy the experience,” Gómez says. “It won’t be a concert where people are seated in silence. We’re not going to have a normal concert — it’s going to be a Cuban party.”
Ventura Music Festival
Ventura’s flagship cultural event returns for its 18th season with an eclectic and impressive lineup of world-class classical and jazz music staged in various venues under the artistic direction of Nuvi Mehta and sustained by the generous support of donors and volunteers. This year’s highlights include the acclaimed Emerson String Quartet’s performance of the last quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; 2011 Cleveland Piano Competition winner Alexander Schimpf’s impassioned treatment of Bach; Ventura County’s own young prodigy pianist David Fraley and former Rising Star violinist Jourdan Urbach; Cuban expatriates Tiempo Libre (see cover feature) and the return of soprano Nicole Cabell, whose voice was described by the London Times as “liquid gold.” Each year, the Ventura Music Festival’s Education Outreach Program presents live performances and interactive instruction to nearly 4,000 local students, many of whom might not otherwise be exposed to this caliber of live music performance. Select concerts (denoted below with an asterisk) include Artistic Director Nuvi Mehta’s entertaining and informative pre-concert talks that feature anecdotes from the lives of the program’s composers and some historical background about the music. Tickets to all concerts are available by visiting www.venturamusicfestival.org or at venues on the day of performances. Complete programs are available inside the April issue of Ventana magazine.
Friday, May 4; and Friday, May 11, 3 p.m.
Nona’s Courtyard Café
67 S. California St.
Tea & Trumpets with Festival Brass Quintet. An authentic English high tea is served during an elegant performance of cheery horns. BOTH DAYS SOLD OUT.
Friday, May 4, 8 p.m. *
Community Presbyterian Church
1555 Poli St.
Federico Mondelci. The saxophonist performs his critically acclaimed “Classical Meets Jazz” program with Paolo Biondi on piano. $15-$40.
Saturday, May 5, 8 p.m. *
Ventura Missionary church
500 High Point Drive
Alexander Schimpf. The award-winning pianist, “a skilled interpreter of Bach” according to Nuvi Mehta, performs Bach, Ravel, Scriabin and Beethoven. $15-$40.
Sunday, May 6, 2 p.m.
Ventura College Green
4667 Telegraph Road
Tiempo Libre. The Cuban jazz group plays its spirited Latin music in an outdoor setting. The Alfredo Rodgriguez Trio will open. Bring your own seating. $15-$45.
Tuesday, May 8, 6:45 p.m. *
Ventura Missionary Church
500 High Point Drive
Emerson String Quartet. Winner of nine Grammy awards, it is considered the foremost chamber ensemble in the world. The quartet will perform the last quartets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. $15-$45.
Thursday, May 10, 7:30 p.m. *
First United Methodist Church
1338 E. Santa Clara St.
Rising Stars Jourdan Urbach and David Fraley. Be amazed by the talent of these young men. Fraley will perform Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt as well as works by Beethoven and Kapustin on piano. Violinist Urbach will perform his own compositions in addition to works by Ravel, Saint-Saens, Gershwin and others. $15-$25.
Friday, May 11, 8 p.m.
Community Presbyterian Church
1555 Poli St.
Pablo Sáinz Villegas. The Spanish guitarist has more than 25 international awards for his soulful playing. He will perform Bach, Barrios and Rodrigo among others. $15-$40.
Saturday, May 12, 8 p.m.
Ventura High Performing Arts Auditorium
2 N. Catalina St.
Nicole Cabell and Shawn Mathey with the Festival Orchestra. Local soprano Nicole Cabell closes the season alongside tenor Shawn Mathey and the Festival Orchestra with Nuvi Mehta conducting. The exciting finale includes a program of duets, arias and songs by Mozart, Schubert, Britten and Gershwin. $15-$45.