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Stealing Michael Jackson Sets Cuban on Road to Musical Freedom: Interview

Growing up in Havana, Jorge Gomez and his friends got around Fidel Castro’s ban on U.S. music by taking their transistor radios to rooftops to steal Michael Jackson or Chaka Khan from the airwaves.

Gomez and some musician friends fled Cuba and in 2001 formed the group Tiempo Libre, which specializes in timba, a mixture of salsa, jazz, rock and Cuban music. The last CD, “Bach in Havana,” featured the composer’s classics with a Latin beat and earned them a Grammy nomination. Their faces appeared on Cafe Bustelo coffee cans, their music on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

The group’s follow-up recording, “My Secret Radio” (Sony Masterworks), was released this month. It recalls the days of censored music and pays tribute to one of the group’s idols, Earth, Wind & Fire. I spoke with Gomez at Bloomberg News global headquarters in New York a few days before Tiempo Libre performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cole: With Castro’s censorship of outside music, how did you get records?

Gomez: You had to wait for someone to come from another country to bring records into the country. They would come from Mexico, for example, and then they would make copies. That’s when we started listening to music.

Photographer: Patrick Cole/Bloomberg

Jorge Gomez, keyboardist and the musical director of Tiempo Libren at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York. Gomez grew up in Havana, Cuba and listened at nights to U.S.-based groups and artists banned from his country's airwaves, such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder. Close

Jorge Gomez, keyboardist and the musical director of Tiempo Libren at Bloomberg News... Read More

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Photographer: Patrick Cole/Bloomberg

Jorge Gomez, keyboardist and the musical director of Tiempo Libren at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York. Gomez grew up in Havana, Cuba and listened at nights to U.S.-based groups and artists banned from his country's airwaves, such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder.

Cole: Tell me about your secret radio.

Gomez: My grandfather gave one to my father and my father gave one to me. We had to make our own antenna to listen to America radio because in Cuba, the antenna is too short. We had to wait until 1 a.m., until all the Cuban radio stations stopped broadcasting. We spent from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. listening to radio, and we recorded everything.

‘Smell of Flowers’

Cole: Were you okay with leaving your native land and going first to Central America and then to Miami?

Gomez: I had to leave Cuba to fulfill my dream, but you pay a high price. You miss things like the smell of the flowers in the morning, the people. But you have to try to forget about those things.

Cole: One of the songs on your latest CD is a remake of an Earth, Wind & Fire song. Have you met the band?

Gomez: Yes! The other day I was at one of their sound checks, and I got to play with them! I wanted to cry.

Cole: Will you ever return to Cuba?

Gomez: I would love to do that, but it’s one thing to say that, and to live there is another. When you travel in the U.S., you realize that this is one of the best countries in the world. When you go to Italy, you find that the bed is too small or the elevator isn’t working. I live in Miami Beach now.

Tiempo Libre performances this year include: Florence, Italy (June 5); Charlotte, North Carolina (June 10-11); Asheville, North Carolina (June 12); Omaha, Nebraska (July 7); and San Francisco (Oct 9). Information and full tour schedule: http://www.tiempolibremusic.com/events

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at pcole3@Bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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