March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Cuban timba musicians bring Grammy-nominated sound to Wharton Center tonight

Courtesy photo

Thursday, Dec. 6 — Tiempo Libre’s latest album, “Secret Radio,” pays homage to the band members’ teen years — before they were nominated for three Grammy Awards, touring the world or performing with Joshua Bell on NBC’s Tonight Show.

The Sony Masterworks record delves back to when the “timba” musicians were all studying at the National School of Art in Cuba, back when listening to American music was forbidden by the government and Russia pulled its backing from the island. But Tiempo Libre pianist and musical director Jorge Gmez said nothing was going to stop them from listening to the music they loved.

“We were living in Cuba and trying to get any music we could from the United States,” Gmez said. “At that point it was illegal, so we’d wait until 1 a.m. and go to the roof with an antenna trying to get a signal from the United States. Some nights we got lucky and we’d start recording music like Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. The next morning we’d make a huge party with the music and we’d invite everyone in the neighborhood. They’d ask, ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ We’d say, ‘Shhh. Keep quiet. It’s Michael Jackson.’”

Perhaps it was that love of American music that inspired the members to relocate to the States. They now call Miami home and have been performing as Tiempo Libre since 2001. But the move hasn’t completely Americanized its Cuban-inspired sound. “Basically it’s a mix between salsa and jazz,” Gmez said. “But we play everything. We play Latin jazz; we play cha-cha-cha, dancehall, and rhumba.”

The band’s fusion sound has taken them across the globe, including gigs in Pakistan, Singapore, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Mexico and Hawaii. Thursday the group returns to the Wharton Center for the third time.

“It’s going to be a party,” Gmez said. “If you want to dance, dance. If you want to sing, sing. We’ll be playing music from all our albums.”

One group of locals who are pumped for this lively performance is the Michigan State University Salsa Club. The student-group’s co-president, Zac Tomczyk, said the club has been dancing to Tiempo Libre at their club meetings leading up to the concert.

“Tiempo Libre’s music is really interesting,” Tomczyk said. “It’s this bright combination of traditional Cuban music with what we may consider classical-fusion music. You get this vibrant, very alive sound from brass instruments and drumming. A lot of their pieces are very energetic.”

Tomczyk said the group’s classical slant helps define its eclectic sound.

“They’re all classically trained in Cuba,” he said. “Cuba has two very distinct styles: there is upbeat street music, but at the same time they have this very classical structure of music education. It fuses classical music, like Bach and other classical composers, with Cuban music. You hear a lot of history and culture in their music.”

Tiempo Libre
@ Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre
7:30 p.m., $43