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Cuban Delight: Tiempo Libre play Bach, Cuban classics and dance with the stars 

Tiempo Libre play Bach, Cuban classics and dance with the stars.

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I don't typically watch Dancing with the Stars, the television program that allowed Tom DeLay to sort of dance, sort of flop his disgraced ex-minority-whip self across its well-lit and inordinately shiny stage.

But you know what? The musicianship featured by the rotating house bands on the program is pure dynamite. That's right: pure dynamite, even if you do have to listen to it while watching some bloated B-movie star or long-retired professional athlete awkwardly gyrate while wearing embarrassing get-ups. But a couple weeks ago, I heard that Tiempo Libre - the same Cuban music septet slated to hit the Tower stage on Tuesday night - would be playing on the show, I figured I would set down the remote and give a listen.

I won't comment on the dancing part, as this isn't a dancing, celebrity, television or psychology column, but there was something appealing about Tiempo Libre. And after taking in two discs of the Miami-based but Cuban-born crew, the band's talent is certainly appealing. The Latin arrangements, sung exclusively in Spanish, are peppered with jazz influences that come to life on stage, but stand up well on the band's What You've Been Waiting For. Given that I, for reasons still unbeknownst to me, studied French in high school, I have no idea what the hell lead singer Joaquin Diaz is crooning about, but it all sounds fun.

That said, Tiempo Libre isn't merely a party band, with its members having studied at Havana's prestigious La ENA conservatory. Although now living and touring in the US, the band members learned their craft in Cuba during a time when it was still illegal to play American songs on the radio. But now, the group serves as a sort of musical ambassadorial operation, bringing a little-heard Cuban style to American clubs and theaters. Given the Grammy-winning outfit is the only authentic Cuban group of its kind actively playing in the US, the band's appeal lies, to a degree, not only in its talent but also in its uniqueness.

Tiempo Libre's latest disc, Bach in Havana, is, and this is the truth, a full album of afro-Cuban interpretations of Bach numbers. As in Johann Sebastian Bach. The seemingly impossible collision of classical numbers with a distinctively Latin style works surprisingly well on this disc. At times, Tiempo Libre wanders miles from the basis of Bach's classics, but the band keeps itself rooted, for example, in the general idea of "Minuet in G" even if a congo drum explosion breaks up the pastoral piano sounds of the arrangement. The record serves as proof of both the band's classical training and its devotion to its cultural roots.

The band is playing the typically sit-down-and-watch Tower Theatre, but that format may have to change when this get-out-of-your-seat-and-shake-what-ya-mama-gave-ya band takes the stage. Dance away, just don't take any pointers from Tom Delay... or any of the celebrity contestants on that show, for that matter.


Five Other Non-English-Language Acts That We Couldn't Understand But Sang Along To:
Pink Martini: The Portland-based mini-orchestra has played Bend several times and sings in 14 different languages, just because they can. They went to Harvard, ya see.
Ozomatli: The long-lasting LA band does sing in English, but their Spanish-language hip-hop numbers are always the highlight of their show.
Seu Jorge: David Bowie classics sang in Portuguese? Yes, please. See The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack for reference.
Manu Chao: The Barcelona-based multi-genre party machine has become a summer festival staple, crossing language barriers and wearing plenty of cool hats, too!
Rammstein: OK, this isn't really a favorite of mine, but in the late '90s, everyone I knew was rocking the angry German goth-metal number "Du Hast," which quite pleasantly translates to "You Hate."


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