Growing up in Cuba, Jorge Gomez would sneak up to his roof with a metal coat hanger late at night and fashion it into a makeshift antenna, desperate to pick up sound waves from Miami radio stations.
The fuzzy, clipped beats and melodies that crossed the ocean were unlike anything he’d heard in the streets of Cuba—and forbidden in Castro’s police state.
They niggled him while he labored over Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms in Havana at La ENA, Cuba’s only music conservatory. He never dreamed that he would one day arrive on the shores of Florida and listen to this music on his own static-free radio, with the volume dialed all the way up.
Having fled Castro’s dictatorship 20 years ago, Gomez, 44, is a pianist, songwriter, and the founding member of Tiempo Libre, which bills itself as “the first authentic all-Cuban timba band in the United States.” (Their sixth album, Panamericano, comes out on Tuesday.)
Arriving in the U.S. in 2000, Gomez settled in Miami and reunited with childhood friends whom he studied with at La ENA. Within a year, he convinced six of them to start a timba band and bring Cuban dance music to the States.
Music producers thought timba would never take off in the U.S.
“People would say I needed to play Mexican or country music to sell albums,” Gomez tells me in his heavy Spanish accent. “But I didn’t come to this country to sell albums. I came to play my music. I came to be happy with what I do and who I am.”
They were wrong about timba: U.S. audiences loved its unique sound of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and jazz harmonies infused with funk and contemporary R&B beats. And Gomez did sell albums, three of which have been nominated for Grammy awards, including Bach in Havana (2009), which earned Tiempo Libre respect from the classical community.
That same year, they collaborated with renowned violinist Joshua Bell on his album, At Home With Friends, and performed with him on The Tonight Show. Fusing Baroque and Afro-Cuban music was an innovative passion project for Gomez and the other Tiempo Libre band members who were forbidden to play anything but classical music at the conservatory.
Gomez’s life in Cuba couldn’t have been more different from the affluence displayed in T magazine several weeks ago in a story a provocatively titled “Cuba Libre.”
It featured a recently restored, pre-revolution Havana mansion, where an American woman, Pamela Ruiz, lives with her Cuban husband, the artist Damian Aquiles.
Ruiz immigrated to Cuba in the mid-’90s after meeting Aquiles while scouting locations there for an American ad campaign. (Critically, Ruiz maintained her U.S. citizenship and, with it, her savings and income.)
Several years after arriving, Ruiz began a nine-year process of acquiring a dilapidated,100-year-old estate from an old woman. Ruiz and Aquiles have hosted a slew of rich and famous Americans since completing renovations last year, including Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and fashion designer Proenza Schouler.
Six months after President Obama announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with the country, the magazine’s glossy feature of Ruiz and Aquiles’s “cultural salon” offers a utopian vision of a new Cuba: wealth in the form of art deco furniture instead of capitalist monstrosities like McDonald’s and Starbucks, and Cuba’s rich culture not just preserved but revitalized.
But outside the confines of Ruiz and Aquiles’s Havana villa, there is no “Cuba Libre.”
“It’s very easy to talk about things you don’t really know. You have to live it,” says Gomez, “Tourists go to Cuba and stay in hotels where they have everything they need. If you’re Cuban, you have nothing.”
After Gomez graduated from the conservatory at age 18 in 1990, his limited future was dictated by the Cuban government: He could either continue studying classical music for another five years or spend two years in the army.
“My heart was in Cuban dance music, not classical, so I joined the army,” Gomez tells me.
The Berlin Wall had fallen a year earlier, precipitating the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been subsidizing Cuba since the mid-’60s.
Gomez spent his first year in military service training for combat. His musical talent allowed him to trade his gun for a piano during his second year, when he traveled to military bases entertaining disheartened Cuban soldiers.
He earned 7 pesos a month—roughly $1—during his two years of service.
He returned home in 1992 to find his house as decrepit as Castro’s Communism: crumbling walls, a busted plumbing system, a collapsing ceiling.
Gomez worked as many tourism jobs as he could during the next three years, pocketing enough money in tips to incrementally rebuild his family home. But the reparations did not go unnoticed by the government.
“They said to me, ‘Where are you buying those materials? You know it’s illegal.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know, but if I don’t fix my home I’m going to die!’”
They threatened to throw him in jail if he continued.
“You support Communism, and then they put you in jail for fighting for your life. You think, ‘Wait a second, there’s something really wrong here.’”
Cuba had also plunged into famine, so Gomez and his mother were surviving on a diet of potatoes and white rice. He weighed only 90 pounds when he fled Cuba for Guatemala in 1995.
Gomez’s service in the military would prove crucial to his escape: The government gave him and his mother permission to visit family in Guatemala for several weeks. He arrived at the airport in Havana with one bag, knowing that anything more would betray his plan to leave Cuba for good.
“I left my whole life in that house,” he says. “Pictures, two pianos, my car—everything.”
Throughout Gomez's life, the Castro regime had drummed into his head that Cuba was “the best country in the world,” he tells me, wide-eyed.
"Guatemala was wracked by crime, but its people were free," he adds.
He recalls going to a Guatemalan street kiosk the first day he was there and seeing “meat” all over the menu.
“In Cuba, I would have gone to jail for 30 years if I was caught eating meat! I was afraid to eat it.”
That same day, he put an ad in the newspaper offering piano lessons in exchange for computer and web tutoring. Two days later, he landed a job writing 30-second jingles for Coca-Cola.
Rubbing his hands, Gomez leans toward me as if to confess a secret or recount a horrible memory.
“I made more money in eight hours living in Guatemala than I did my whole life in Cuba!” he says with a smile.
Gomez has returned to Cuba twice since he fled 20 years ago, but his old friends don’t want to hear his stories of opportunity—of meat and money and freedom.
It’s not uncommon for people in Communist and ex-Communist societies to be skeptical of entrepreneurial ambition.
They associate it with corrupt upward mobility and a willingness to work for one’s oppressors, unable to recognize their own oppression.
It’s understandable then that Gomez’s friends in Cuba—where there’s been a maximum wage for decades; where less than 5 percent of citizens have heavily-monitored Internet access; where literacy rates are high but they can only read propaganda; where health care is free but the country lacks basic medical supplies—are skeptical of his fortunes and freedom.
So while Americans on the left, nostalgic for a dystopian fantasy of authentic Cuba, whinge about the prospect of McDonald’s and mini-malls wiping out Cuban culture, Gomez (and many analysts) say they don’t have to worry about that.
“If they put a Starbucks in Cuba, no one will touch it,” says Gomez. “People in Cuba will still drink Cuban coffee."
Cubans may be desperate for free speech and an end to food rations, but according to analysts, they’re not exactly dreaming of McDonald’s golden arches. Even if there is political change within the country, the shift will likely be toward socialism.
Never mind that after Raul Castro made a deal with President Obama, he told his people that he would welcome U.S.-Cuban diplomacy “without renouncing a single one of our principles.”
Unless those principles are dramatically different from the totalitarian ones that the Castro regime has forced on its people since 1959, restless Cubans (and T magazine) can kiss their hopes of a “Cuba Libre” goodbye.
Meanwhile, Gomez is gearing up for his own “Cuba Libre.” That’s the title of a Broadway-bound musical Tiempo Libre will be performing on stage in Portland, Oregon, come October. “It tells the collective stories of Tiempo Libre’s band members growing up in Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship.”
“A lot of musical theater only shows the good parts about Cuba,” says Gomez. “I know people prefer to see Spiderman than a musical about Communism, but I want to tell the real story. And I don’t want to tell people they have to know and see this story. I want them to want to see it, to be drawn in by the music.”
This copy was amended Monday to take account of an additional quote by Mr. Gomez.