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After a journey of decades, Tiempo Libre brings native Cuban dance rhythms to SJU

Jorge Gómez grew up in Communist Cuba. As a teen in the 1980s, when listening to American music was forbidden, he studied piano at the Escuala Nacional de Artes – a premier conservatory influenced by Russian techniques, where instruction was strict and success only for the most disciplined and talented.

By day, his life was Beethoven and Brahms. At night, however, he and some friends would sneak onto the roof of their building in Havana and use a coat hanger and tinfoil to increase the reception on their radio. With a little luck and the right atmospheric conditions, they could pull from Miami – more than 200 miles away – the faster beats of Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. They experimented with what they heard from such legends, creating their own brand of Cuban music, including timba, Latin jazz and the rumba.

Those same sounds will echo through the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 11 at Saint John’s University. More than 25 years after Gómez fled Cuba and later unexpectedly reunited with those same friends in the U.S., they will perform as Tiempo Libre, which means “free time” in Spanish.

“Is going to be a concert full of energy, a journey of true Cuban music,” Gómez said of what to expect at Saint John’s. “We are playing music from all our albums and all different rhythm, from jazz to conga, from son to classical and, of course, for the dancers.”

Oh, yes. The dancers. Tiempo Libre is well-known for inspiring people to dance – with conga lines common at concerts, weaving through the audience, sometimes led by band members. It’s a party that would shock his instructors at the Escuala Nacional de Artes, better known as “La ENA.”

“La ENA is very rigorous and only the best students go on their instruments,” said Gómez, who founded his band in 2001 and has since earned three Grammy nominations and performed with Gloria Estefan and on The Tonight Show and Dancing with the Stars. “You have to go through many tests to get in, and students from all over the island of Cuba go. Back in school, it was forbidden to play any type of music that was not classical, but we always hid and learned from jazz, rock, funk and, of course, Cuban music. When you graduate, you leave being a teacher on your instrument, with an incredible technique and also with many friends – some in the band now.”

Flight to Guatemala, America

In 1990, when he was 18, the clandestine jam sessions had sowed the seeds of creativity in Gómez, who then had to make a choice: commit to another five years studying classical music or fulfill a mandatory two-year stint in the army. Despite a monthly pay of 7 pesos – then equivalent to about $1, he chose the latter and, after one year of training for combat, was given an assignment as a musician, entertaining the troops at army bases. Upon discharge and after the collapse of the Soviet Union helped conspire to plunge Cuba into famine, he worked a series of jobs in tourism and covertly scraped together enough to escape to Guatemala in 1995. During his final months in his homeland, his diet was potatoes and white rice and his weight had dropped to 90 pounds.

“In Cuba, people have always wanted to go to the USA,” Gómez said. “That’s why we always looked for a way to listen to the news and music on the radio. We learned a lot listening to the music of those times and that formed the basis of our popular musical formation.”

It wasn’t planned. When he immigrated to Miami in 2000, he had no idea some of his friends had done the same, coming by way of Spain, Italy and Germany. But coincidence turned into opportunity as their paths crossed and they began to jam. Eight CDs and many hundreds of performances later, they’ve become synonymous with sophisticated, dance-inducing concerts and a reputation as a hot Latin band and Afro-Caribbean music group.

Tiempo Libre includes Gómez as musical director, keyboardist and translator. Lead Singer Xavier Mili, conga player Leandro Gonzalez, bassist Wilber Rodrigues and saxophonist Luis Beltran have been with the band for years. More recent members include Roberto Consuegra (trumpet) and Yissy Garcia (drums).

First appearance in more than five years in Minnesota

Gómez’s group hasn’t played in Minnesota since a 2017 appearance at the former Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.

This will be Tiempo Libre’s fifth concert this fall but just their 10th since the pandemic hit in March 2020. Their next appearance isn’t scheduled until April.

Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $38 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances. The performance is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Members of Tiempo Libre are shown.

Members of Tiempo Libre perform in concert. They will do so Nov. 11 at Saint John’s University.

Members of Tiempo Libre are shown.Tiempo Libre includes (from left) Luis Beltran (saxophone), Jorge Gómez (keybords), Wilber Rodriguez (bass), Yissy Garcia (drums), Roberto Consuegra (trumpet), Leandro Gonzalez (congas) and Xavier Mili (vocals). Gómez founded the group with friends he knew while studying classical music in Communist Cuba. They later immigrated to the United States and have produced eight albums, three Grammy nominations and hundreds of concerts prior to their appearance Nov. 11 in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater at Saint John’s University.