When Cuban group Tiempo Libre takes the stage this weekend with the Florida Orchestra, expect the unexpected.
“This is not going to be a normal concert, it’s going to be a Cuban party!” says Jorge Gomez, 41, pianist and musical director for the Cuban group, which will perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and The Mahaffey Theater St. Petersburg.
“People say, ‘Oh, this is a symphonic orchestra, we have to be serious and go well-dressed,’ but Cuban music attracts all kinds of people and everyone dances,” he adds in a telephone interview from Colombia, where he was visiting relatives.
The concert will include a potpourri of music including jazz, salsa, son, conga, mambo and cha-cha-cha, as well as Sebastian Bach.
Sarah Hicks, conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, will serve as guest conductor for the concert.
The performances are part of the orchestra’s cultural exchange program with the island nation.
Growing up in Cuba, members of Tiempo Libre shared a common bond with music, even if that music was banned by the (communist) regime.
“We were not allowed to listen to anything coming from the United States,” Gomez says. “(The government) preferred we listened to music from China. That’s why we had to come up with makeshift antennas.”
Using a large broomstick, coat hangers, cables and transistors, band members constructed antennae to capture radio signals from the U.S., Gomez says.
“We would get up on the highest roof we could find and wait until 1a.m., when all the Cuban stations would shut down,” he said. “Then we would wave it around to see if we could catch anything.”
Though they were unsuccessful most of the time, when they did pick up a signal, they’d make the most of it.
They soon began to recognize they were picking up songs from artists like Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, among others.
“When we actually got something, we would start recording at 1 a.m. and go non-stop until 6 a.m. and the next day, we would have a party with that music,” says Gomez. “We didn’t know what the lyrics said and we didn’t know how to dance to them, but we did know it was something completely different.”
Gomez and his band members, all graduates of Havana’s National School of Art, left Cuba at different times, but eventually wound up in Miami.
“When we all finally met up, we were all working for different artists,” Gomez adds. “Celia Cruz, Albita Rodriguez, Willy Chirino … and they all had very distinctive styles, so we needed time to meet and play ‘timba’, classical and jazz (music), that’s why we decided to call ourselves Tiempo Libre.”
Since forming in 2001, the group has recorded five albums, with tunes in English and Spanish; three of their releases, “Lo Que Esperabas,” “Arroz Con Mango and “Bach in Havana,” were nominated for Grammy Awards.
Gomez says performing in the U.S. has been a dream come true.
“You always want to see if your dreams can be better in other places,” he says. “And they have been better in the United States.”