Dance it off
by arwulf arwulf
From the July, 2016 issue
It's Friday night and you need to cut loose, so you head for Main St., climb the stairs to the Ark, and settle in for an evening with the Miami-based Afro-Cuban dance band Tiempo Libre. Twenty minutes into the set you realize you're unable to sit still or sit at all. Finding a spot near the mixing board where you can sway to the rhythms without obscuring anyone's view, you feel the stress of the workweek evaporating. The lead vocalist is dancing too, and clearly appreciates your susceptibility to the music. Smiling broadly, he encourages you with shouts and laughter. Even though you don't understand more than a word or two of Spanish, you have the sense that it really doesn't matter. For days you've been carrying around a lot of uptight energy that doesn't even belong to you, and Tiempo Libre has come to town to help you dance it off.
Tiempo libre means spare time. When translated literally as free time, the phrase is coded with a reference to freedom: most of these musicians grew up under a government that imposed ideological constraints and declared U.S. radio broadcasts off limits. Conservatory training at the Escuela Nacional de Artes would later earn the Cuban expatriates widespread critical acclaim when they released their 2009 Latin Baroque album Bach in Havana and their 2008 album O'Reilly Street, a collaboration with classical flautist James Galway that included movements from Claude Bolling's tidily constructed suites for flute and jazz piano. While they still regularly invoke Bach in concert, Tiempo Libre has intensified its sound and performance technique over fifteen years of cross-pollination with Miami's thriving Latin American population.
One ingredient that makes Tiempo Libre sizzle is a hybrid style called timba, widely regarded as a contemporary representation of Cuban national identity. Although firmly grounded in the rich humus of Caribbean musical traditions, timba transcends the parameters of conventional salsa by incorporating elements of jazz, funk, R&B, soul, and sometimes rock and
rap. Timba rhythm players specialize in creative and surprising gear changes, abruptly altering danceable grooves to launch into contrasting patterns sustained by funky electric bass lines. Busier and less predictable than straight-ahead salsa, timba can feel refreshingly complex by comparison.
Seated near the back of the Ark with a glass of something cold and carbonated, you're listening to the band perform a luscious bolero. The saxophonist is taking a flute solo, and the singer is smiling with his eyes closed, gently accenting the pulse of the tune by rubbing a small stick over the face of a serrated calabash that the Cubans call a guiro. Entranced by the magical subtlety of a love song and its extraordinary healing properties, you realize that shared moments filled with lyrical beauty are as essential to being human as the need for joyous and unbridled celebration.
[Originally published in July, 2016.]
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