The setup at Crowell Concert Hall affords little room for revelry. Though a standing ovation might greet an exceptional performer, at many concerts a bevy of answered questions and a few polite claps are fitting ends to the night. Ushers in white and black patrol the empty aisles. A stray cough occasionally punctuates the music.
Most artists appreciate this clean and uncluttered atmosphere. But during their September 29th concert, timba collective Tiempo Libre wouldn’t have it. At their behest, a full half of the audience rose from their seats and danced.
“We need to have people dancing, I know that is very difficult,” said Jorge Gomez, keyboardist and musical director for the all-Cuban ensemble. “We need some space here, really. Try the aisles.”
Gomez and the rest of his band—which includes a conga player, a seven-string bassist, and a wildly energetic singer whose hips nearly broke the sound barrier—filled the hall with a unique mix of high-voltage jazz and energizing salsa, all the while maintaining a charming rapport with the audience. Each song blended seamlessly into the next, allowing the audience little time to rest and the air even less time to cool. When the group’s singer, Joaquin “El Kid” Diaz, sauntered onto the stage, he let loose a stream of high-speed Spanish to course through the solos and beats. At one point, four of the band’s six members stood in a line and twisted their hips to the congas.
Ben Shen ’09, who left his seat to join his friends in the aisles, appreciated the energy.
“It was excellent, because the audience joined in on the performance,” he said. “After a while it became a festival.”
Not everyone felt thrilled about the performance, however. Elizaveta Bourchtein ’10, who managed the drinks table, voiced some concerns about safety.
“It’s great that they’re dancing, but we have to make sure that they don’t swamp the stage,” she said. “With that many people it becomes a fire hazard.”
The band formed in 2001 when its members, all of whom have known each other since the age of five, began jamming together between working with other musical projects—hence their name, “Free Time.” Their stated goal is to introduce audiences to an authentic style of Cuban salsa, timba, that rarely gets airtime in the United States. Richard Chavez, a Miami native who flew up to Middletown to see the performance, talked about the struggles the band faced in Cuba.
“In Cuba, their music was censored because it deviated from the traditional Cuban style,” he said “Government agents would shut off their sound systems and throw them out of venues. In the U.S., they can play their music freely.”
Chavez described timba as a portrait of Cuban life.
“Timba comes from their everyday living,” he said. “The intensity of their daily lives—the censorship they labor under, the lack of food in Cuba, etc.—shines through in their music. The hardships they suffered fuel their compositions.”
Already nominated for two Grammy awards, the band has just been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony for an orchestra and big band collaboration, entitled “Rumba Sinfónica.” The band will also perform at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and at the Cascade Music Festival, among others.
As for the virtue that lent the band its power, Chavez cited their verve.
“It’s all in the juice,” he said.