Classical and Cuban Sounds in One Stop
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By BEN RATLIFF
Published: July 1, 2009
It’s not surprising to see a Cuban timba band playing Bach. Timba is aggressive and full of ideas; its players shoulder Afro-Cuban grooves but add spaghetti junctions of ornament on top, including Bach quotations. And most of the best bands in timba come from the Cuban conservatory system, so Baroque music runs deep in their learning.
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Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Tiempo Libre, a seven-member band originally from Cuba, playing above Columbus Circle.
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This is why Tiempo Libre’s new album, “Bach in Havana” (Sony Classical), doesn’t sound like a stunt. A little cute and eager to please, but not a stunt. The septet of Cuban musicians who have relocated to Miami — the group advertises itself as “the first authentic all-Cuban timba band in the United States” — makes its ambitions plain: it wants to spread timba to United States audiences who have no experience with it.
On Tuesday at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where Tiempo Libre appeared for two sets as part of its summer tour of colleges and festivals like Tanglewood and Ravinia, the music was both classical and populist. The band circled around a guaguancó Minuet in G (in four-beat rhythm, not three); gave the opening lines of the Cello Suite No. 1 to the electric bassist Tebelio Fonte in “Baqueteo con Bajo” before breaking into a montuno; and folded Sonata in D minor into a cha-cha, in which the fugue part, played on keyboard by Jorge Gómez, worked in a call-and-response relationship to jazzlike horn-section arrangements.
But Tiempo Libre also played “The Star-Spangled Banner” — part of the band’s song “Arroz con Mango,” about the double-consciousness of being grateful both to Cuba and the United States — and a version of “Guantanamera,” encouraging audience members to sing the refrain. Through the set, ghastly synthesizer tones spoke in the worldwide language of soft pop; brass counterpoint and the strong, serene groove of the drummer, Hilario Bell, were reminders that you were listening to something irreducibly Cuban.
Above all Tiempo Libre wanted to engage the audience — make it sing and move and react. The band always points, at least, toward a dance music of sophistication and abandon, but playing that music to seated audiences who don’t know the cues doesn’t always create the desired effect.
The group had to work a little bit harder. So the singer, Joaquín Díaz, came down from the stage with three other frontline members during the funk-timba “Manos Pa’rriba” (“Hands in the Air”) for synchronized dancing. And in “Tu Conga Bach,” the horn players started a dance line that threaded around the club. It took a while, but the room warmed up.