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Timba in Transition

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A Concert Report and an Interview with Elizabeth Sobol

So far, the 21st Century has been a tough one for Latin music ...

Fania icon Larry Harlow complains that the once mighty New York salsa scene has been reduced to one viable club. CDs are on the endangered species list. Most of the dance clubs that are getting by are doing so with DJs instead of live bands.

The most optimistic of observers call it a cyclical slump, but a more convincing argument can be made that the world's economy has changed in fundamental ways that will make a rebound in the live Latin music scene very difficult.

So far, the 21st Century has been a tough one for Latin music ...

... but if it's Cuban music you're interested in -- how did I guess? -- the last 4 decades of the 20th Century had already been bad enough. After Cuba had dominated the global musical market in the 1950s, the US embargo effectively cut the rest of the world off from the new developments on the island. By the 90s, the folly of the embargo had become obvious to everyone -- except those controlling the embargo ... and those controlling the radio stations and record companies -- but in spite of the obstacles, timba, and to an even greater degree, the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, were packing US concert halls by the late 90s. In the two year period from February 1999 to February 2001 I heard over 70 live timba concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. In the last two years, I've heard less than ten. The new US regime has done its level best to pound the last few nails into the coffin of cultural exchange while its Cuban counterpart has cut back drastically on the policies which p aved the way for the creative explosion that occurred in the 90s within Cuba.

The last few years have witnessed an unprecedented exodus of top Cuban musicians, and now bandleaders, to Miami. But what have they found in this bizarre community with the well-earned nickname "The Timba Graveyard"? El Méd ico de la Salsa and Carlos Manuel were massively popular in Cuba -- in fact, each was the most popular figure in Cuba for a significant period of time -- and yet, since coming to the US, they've encountered only frustration. They've been unable to sustain regular bands, much less a regular touring schedule or successful regular local gigs.

Such was my state of mind as I found my sorry, cynical self sitting in a packed house on a Monday night at Yoshi's hearing a hard-driving timba band with no sappy salsa, no reguetón, no drum machines, no substitute musicians and an extremely tight and well-rehearsed repertoire. It was virtually the same band I'd seen the previous year playing for another large Monday night crowd at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

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TL's only personnel change in the last year: trumpeter Raúl Rodríguez

With two consecutive Grammy nominations from the anti-Cuban music industry under their belts, Tiempo Libre was at the beginning of a well-booked 3 month tour and buzzing about several exciting new projects that were coming their way.

Live Latin music is dead, but someone seems to have forgotten to give Tiempo Libre the news.

¿Qué tiene TL que sigue así? As I pieced together a web page for Tom Ehrlich's stunning photos, I discovered two clues:

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1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ... seven ... Manolito y su Trabuco has fifteen members -- Tiempo Libre has seven. Seven salaries, seven plane tickets, four hotel rooms ... The math is simple and with the right seven guys and the right arrangements, the groove can be almost as powerful. Like Havana NRG, Tiempo Libre's coros are sung by musicians, but they're talented and well-rehearsed enough to pull it off. There are only two percussionists, but one of them, Hilario Bell, plays clave, bongo bell, timbales and drumset simultaneously. The art and science of percussion technique has grown in leaps and bounds since Tata Güines shocked the world by playing two conga drums at once! The role of the obligatory tecladista is outsourced to leader/pianist Jorge Gómez. The typical 4-5 member horn section is reduced to only two, but it's not just any two -- Luis Beltrán and Raúl Rodríguez are monsters, and, again, well-rehearsed, and if they're not quite as overwhelming as Los Metales de Terror they nevertheless delivered a fat and fully-satisfying sound ... "voluminous" as Los Angeles-based writer Katherine Bonalos put it.

cuban music, musica cubanaReducing the band to seven incredibly versatile and talented musicians gets you into the ballpark, but even with such a dramatic reduction in force, pushing the bottom line into the black is still a longshot on the extremely unfriendly economic battlefield of 21st Century live music.

Meet Tiempo Libre's secret weapon-- member #8 -- producer Elizabeth Sobol. What's her secret? How has she manage to succeed in such a hostile environment?

 

Interview with Elizabeth Sobol

timba.com: Coming from a classical background, both in your studies and in your professional career, how on earth did you wind up managing a timba band?

Elizabeth Sobol: Well, yes, I have spent most of my adult life studying and then working in the world of classical music. As a matter of fact, even today, most of my management clients are classical – violinists Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, the Emerson String Quartet. Until about seven years ago, I had never even heard Cuban music, never spoke a word of Spanish. I was on tour with Itzhak Perlman and we were in Mexico City and the promoters took me out to a bar where I heard live Cuban music for the first time. The rhythmic richness and the physicality of it were pretty over-powering for me. I always refer to that experience as “epiphanic” because it opened a door into a whole new unexpected world for me on so many different levels. I promised myself that as soon as I got back to New York, I was going to learn to speak Spanish, learn everything I could about Cuban music and dance. And, of course, that led me rather naturally to wanting to take on the representation of Cuban artists. Over the years I’ve worked with Arturo Sandoval, Juan-Carlos Formell and I brought Los Fakires from Cuba for their first and only tour to the US. My first Cuban client was Albita, whom I booked into performing arts venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Ravinia, Wolf Trap, the Kimmel Center – places with which I had long-standing relationships because of the classical clients I represented. It was thanks to Albita that I was really introduced to timba. At the time, she had an amazing young pianist who had just arrived into the States. His name was Jorge Gomez. Jorge had the, pardon me, c-j-n-s to send me a demo that he and some of the other members of Albita’s band had made. At that time, I honestly had no idea that I was listening to something called timba. All I heard was a tight, well-rehearsed ensemble playing imaginative, complex arrangements with an underlying alegría and passion that had me hooked on first listening. In one of those kinds of fairy tale kinds of stories, literally two days after getting the demo, I got a call from the Executive Director of the Ravinia Festival asking if I knew a hot young band that could open for Celia Cruz. And that was the real beginning of the Tiempo Libre story – and my immersion into the world of timba.

timba.com: How did your background in classical music help you tackle the formidable problem of making a timba band like Tiempo Libre viable in the US?

ES: There are many, many aspects to that. First of all, the world of classical music is, if anything, a world even smaller than the world of Latin music, Cuban music, World music. I actually have to laugh when I see all these “woe-is-me” pronouncements about the demise of Latin music or Cuban music. I guess I have been living in a world that has been pronounced DOA for so long, that I am used to prophesies of doom. But luckily, I have also had enough years of experience in the business to know that these are cycles. Everything goes in cycles. And even when the cycles are on a down-swing, you know that there is a core audience that is dedicated and passionate about the art form. This past June, I was at Carnegie Hall for a series that the Emerson Quartet gave. Seven concerts in 10 days. There were 1200-1500 people there every single night – listening to some of the most demanding (for listener and performer) music ever written – and there were standing ovations and non-stop cheering. And, by the way, there was no TV coverage, no major print story and only a little airplay on New York’s only remaining classical music station. What does that tell you? That the art form is alive and has enthusiastic followers who show up and listen when it’s played at its highest level.

timba.com: What was it about Tiempo Libre that appealed to your classical sensibilities?

ES: Well, first and foremost, it was Jorge’s sense of mission. His passion for timba and his vision for sharing it with as wide an audience as possible inspires me in the same way that Joshua Bell or Itzhak Perlman do when they take the stage – or work their next recording. The goal of Tiempo Libre has never been to make anyone a millionaire or a star. The goal has been to share this extraordinary music – to transport people to that place of utter joy and abandon that only timba can accomplish.

Secondly, Tiempo Libre work very much in the same way as a classical ensemble would. The complexity and power of Jorge’s arrangements – the way he winds 7 musicians around a tight, multi-voiced musical core - requires a kind of precision that only comes from rehearsing a lot and playing a lot together – knowing and trusting each other enough to let go and take the risks on stage that make a Tiempo Libre performance so thrilling. I have seen so many Latin groups that are a virtual revolving door of musicians – and you hear that it in the music. Even if they are great session players who can sightread a chart flawlessly, there is something fundamental and powerful that you miss if you are just throwing a show together. I mean, the Emerson Quartet would never dream of walking out on stage to play a Beethoven quartet without rehearsing it for hours and hours, even days. And they certainly would never consider performing anything with a substitute string player. I honestly get angry when I hear music played out of tune, out of synch, badly rehearsed. Why should an audience pay attention (not to mention pay to listen) to the music when the musicians themselves don’t treat it with respect?

Thirdly, not just Jorge, but all the members of Tiempo Libre are committed to the group in the way one commits to a serious relationship. They are disciplined and professional in every aspect of their work. We’ve certainly had our share of turnover in the group over the last 5 years. But that turnover was usually a result of band-members who didn’t share the level of commitment – the willingness to work hard and sacrifice for the well-being of the whole group – that was required to reach the level we knew we could reach with the band. I have a very long list of clients I represent, but I always make time to go out on the road with Tiempo Libre. Being with them – feeling their camaraderie, their joy in being with and playing with each other, seeing how they give 150% in absolutely everything they do – inspires me and keeps me energized about my job and my life.

Lastly, Tiempo Libre and I work together the way I work with all my artists – in a kind of artistic dialogue. We throw around ideas for new projects, we critique every show, talking about what could have been better, how to change things to make the show tighter. I bring my American ears to the discussion and they bring their Cuban musical principles and we work out something that is both authentic and accessible. The guys all have a humility and curiosity that is constantly pushing them to want to improve. You cannot be a great artist and have a long, productive career without those qualities, no matter how big your talent.

timba.com: Why do you think it is that timba gets so little notice in the media?

ES: Boy am I glad you asked me that question. I see so much commentary on timba newsgroups about how timba isn’t given any attention. There’s even often the implication that there is some sort of cabal – political or otherwise – that is standing in the way of timba receiving its due recognition – and that this has hindered the flourishing of the music in the States. All I can say is that from my own experience, Tiempo Libre is living proof that there is ample radio play to be had – granted, on jazz and world music shows, NPR stations – not Latin commercial. Everywhere TL play – even in Miami – they get radio play. Okay, so maybe it’s WDNA or WLRN in Miami and not El Zol – but who cares? They are getting on the radio. In virtually every city they play, the papers give them gorgeous, big features. Local Telemundo, Univision, as well as ABC, NBC and CBS local affiliates come out to cover them. .

The point is that the media is not going to cover a genre. They cover artists. And the artists have to have a compelling story to tell in order for it to be interesting to the media. They have to deserve the coverage. Thinking that you’re the best is not a story. Getting media attention takes time, it takes lots of work, it takes investment. And, once an artist actually gets their initial media opportunities, they have to have an innate sense of how to interact with the media, how to give interviews, not to mention basic things like arriving on time and following media schedules. And, though I am a big believer of bi-lingual culture in the United States, I think it is important to mention that not learning to speak English significantly limits any artist’s opportunities for media in this country.


The last, and very important point on this subject, is that the music business is a business. People have to make money – the promoters, the record companies, the managers, the radio & TV stations – not to mention the musicians. That means that they have to sense that there is an audience out there interested in and willing to pay money for that music. I am always amazed at how much moaning goes on here in Miami about the music scene and how little attention is paid to timba, but when the night of the show rolls around, most of the timberos don’t show up! It’s not unlike complaining about the current situation in the White House and then not going out and voting on Election Day!

timba.com: What do you think about the fact that so many amazing Cuban artists have arrived here to the US (particularly to Miami) and found it so hard to thrive?

That’s a very loaded question. For one thing, I have been surprised and saddened to see just how little support Cubans give Cubans once they get to the States. In the classical music world, the whole concept of mentoring and helping up-and-coming artists is such a fundamental part of the way things work. But I have really yet to see many examples of the older, successful generation of Cuban artists here helping the newly-arriving musicians – sadly, quite the contrary. Even amongst the fairly-recently arrived generation, there often seems to be more back-biting and competition than a spirit of mutual support and understanding. I can tell you that the first few years of Tiempo Libre were very difficult in that sense. There was no support whatsoever from the local community – neither from the musicians nor from the timba community. Honestly, it was very, very painful – to be so committed to something and feel utterly invisible. But, it has been a lesson to me. Where possible, I try to help musicians. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to take on more artists for management, but I try when I can to offer advice and suggestions, to try and encourage people.

I think another problem is that a lot of the bigger names arrive here in Miami thinking that their fame will follow them to the US – that they can be the same stars here in the US that they were in Cuba. And that is a fatal error. The only ones who have a shot at surviving – not to mention thriving – are the ones who realize that they have to start more or less from zero. They are the ones who have faith and humility - who are prepared to sacrifice, to have patience and discipline, who commit to learning what it takes to have a career in this country and then set to it. Unfortunately, Miami itself can be a hindrance to Cuban artists. On the one hand, they feel welcomed and comfortable here – they can feel like they are still more or less living in Cuba – and that can be a positive thing. But they also often get a false sense of security. They might be stars here in Miami, but the minute they leave the city limits, nobody knows who they are. When that happens, many become embittered and resigned rather than taking it as a challenge to learn and grow.


timba.com: What’s been your secret for TL's success?

ES: Well, not to sound coy, but my secret for success is this: Tiempo Libre. A manager can never be any better than her artists are and Tiempo Libre are extraordinary in every way. I choose the artists I work with based on many things. Obviously raw talent is first and foremost. But I have to know that that artist has a vision – both musically and professionally. They have to show me that they have an inner strength and resolve, that they are prepared to go the distance. I sensed those qualities in Jorge from the first time I met him; and they are qualities shared by every other member of the band as well.

I’ve already used the words sacrifice and discipline several times, but I cannot stress enough how essential those elements are in the trajectory of a career. No matter how successful an artist is, there are always highs and lows. And if you do not have the fortitude to get through the lows, how will you ever reach the highs? A lot of people are focusing now on Tiempo Libre’s success – the tours, the Grammy nominations, etc. But what they don’t talk about is the years when none of those things were happening, when no one in the timba community was paying any attention to the band and they had yet to break through to the Anglo world. Those were very hard years and the only thing that kept us going was faith – kept alive by the euphoric reaction of the audiences at the occasional gigs that came our way in the early days.

Another essential for an artist: to have respect – for themselves, for those who work with them, for the music, the audience. I suppose I have been spoiled by the classical music business, but I will never get used to the disrespectful behavior that I witness in the music scene here: band leaders who are abusive to or don’t pay their musicians; musicians who don’t show up for rehearsals, or who back out of commitments at the last minute without thinking twice about the ramifications to their colleagues; artists who show up late for their own shows, who don’t bother to do sound checks. Maybe other people in the business have more of a stomach for these kinds of shenanigans, but I don’t tolerate it and it is certainly not tolerated in Tiempo Libre.

Since the very beginning, Tiempo Libre impressed me with their professionalism – both musically and personally, how they comport themselves on the road, with presenters, fans, the press. But of course, it has really been the music and the performance that has ultimately led to the success. Jorge’s original concept – of a band with 7 members – was a stroke of brilliance on so many levels and the fact that he backs up the concept with powerful, musically sophisticated arrangements makes for an unbeatable mix of elements.

But it’s not just the music itself, but the presentation of it, that has led to the group’s success. One of the challenges with timba as a genre has is that its fans think of it as dance music. That implies that you put it in a club where people are drinking and dancing. Sure, the audience has a general sense of whether the band is good or bad, but they aren’t necessarily so tuned into all the finer nuances of the performance. If the energy is high and supports their dance fever, they are fairly willing to overlook bad, loud sound and under rehearsed performances. But, if you put that same music in a concert hall, where people are first and foremost there to listen, then you have a problem. You must be creating and playing music that can stand up to the scrutiny of serious listeners, serious timbaphiles and dancers.

Economically, in the United States – with the long distances between urban centers – you cannot sustain a band (any band, but certainly not a band with 10-15 members) – by playing only clubs. They just don’t pay enough and there aren’t enough of them to keep a band busy. A big part of Tiempo Libre’s success has come as a result of their genius at adapting what they do to concert halls for non-timbaphile audiences without losing the power of their music. They do this by scrupulous attention to sound and to programming: easing an audience into their world by starting with jazz, moving into timba slowly, giving short but informative commentary between works and then working up to the more hard-hitting numbers – by which point, of course, all those Midwestern Lutherans are now in the aisles dancing!

Another critical aspect of Tiempo Libre’s success has been their commitment to education. These are 7 people who draw so deeply on and are so proud of their Cuban roots, they are natural communicators. And nowhere is that more evident than when they give classes. They go from university music schools teaching percussion master classes to inner city community centers where they teach rumba to middle schools where they teach kids to dance son. They do this because they love it, not because they get paid. They are true Cuban music missionaries!

Look, I’ve gone on way longer than I intended to on this subject, so let me wrap it up by saying that for an artist to succeed, you need something special. More than any of the other things I have mentioned, Tiempo Libre’s “something special” is their love of what they do. That love, that unalloyed joy, is transmitted on and off the stage. Enough said.


timba.com: In closing, can you give us an insider's view on where you see timba going and what you see in Tiempo Libre’s future?

Well, growth and evolution are words that come to mind on both counts. It’s funny, I’ve now spent a good 5 years reading Timba.com and all the posts on the timba newsgroups and one of the things that has struck me is a sense that many people seem to want to hear the same timba over and over again. They want to hear the “stars” play the songs that made them famous in Cuba. They want to hear a certain specific timba sound. And that’s fine. I certainly get that. But at the same time, for an artist to stay fresh, for a genre to stay alive, it has to change, it has to evolve. Maybe I have a different point of view because I backed into timba through Tiempo Libre. But I have always found the viewpoint that timba could not exist outside of Cuba, that it has to sound like and express a certain thing, rather absurd. Think about jazz. Think about its migrations from New Orleans to Chicago to New York and beyond. It was these migrations and the attendant evolution that gave it its life. Jorge always talks about timba and the tomato. You plant a tomato in Cuban soil and it tastes one way. Plant it in your backyard in Miami and it will taste different. But it’s still a tomato! And it’s still delicious!

In Tiempo Libre’s future, I see many new projects – both straight ahead timba projects – as well as some very unique collaborations that will take them back to their roots of training in La ENA and the other classical conservatories: an orchestral project called Rumba Sinfonica and another project that we are calling Bach/Batá. They are stretching their wings while staying true to their roots.

With regard to the future of timba, I would like to put forth a heretical thought: I believe that the hope and future of the music is here in the United States. With Tiempo Libre, we have seen first hand across the country the power of this music to move people, to transport them. People are constantly bemoaning the effects of the embargo and the doors closed to Cubans touring here. And, it goes without saying that I consider the embargo the height of political stupidity. But why focus on the closed doors when there are so many amazing Cuban musicians right here, musicians who only a short while ago were still in Cuba, who risked everything to get here, who deserve support and encouragement. I am personally on the edge of my seat to see what happens with these musicians as they grow and evolve – assuming they can stay with it.

I have been heartened recently by the appearance in Miami of several new timba bands, particularly El Pikete, which I think is sensational. But I worry about them. I know how hard it is when no one shows up for the concerts; how demoralizing it is when the first flush of being the new band in town fades and then you are faced with months without work, trying to hold on to musicians, trying to hold on to your dreams.

By virtually all accounts, timba is waning in Cuba. But contrary to many reports, it is not dying. The seeds have been re-sown here in the United States. Rather than waiting for the embargo to fall, I suggest we all tend this precious new garden every way we know how. Rather than pining nostalgically for the heyday of timba in Cuba, let’s celebrate the fact that we have this vital new music in our midst and can watch its progress as it evolves and grows – like a tomato – in this fertile new soil.

Monday, 19 March 2018, 04:15 PM