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Tiempo Libre: Steak and shake

The members of the Miami-based band Tiempo Libre compose music over meals. They get together, cook some rice, beans, fried yucca, tostones and steak, and talk about what's happening in their lives. From those stories, they write lyrics and melodies.

"You can't work if you are hungry, or if you're thirsty. Sometimes, we don't even have to eat, but we know that we have food, and we have rum. So it's OK," says Jorge Gómez, 43, the band's pianist and musical director. "We get to have a good party, a good time, and when the musa is coming, we sit together, and we start writing."

Tiempo Libre will perform Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center. They'll perform timba, traditional songs from Cuba and classical music with a Cuban touch.

Although barbecues and banquets are a must for Gómez, it wasn't always like this. Growing up in Cuba, he found access to food was difficult, especially steak. He dreamed of living in America.

"That is not because we already knew America. It's because we wanted something completely different to Cuba," says Gómez, who lives in Miami Beach. "It was so hard to live there. No food. No freedom of speech."

Even inside his house, Gómez was afraid of saying something about Fidel or Raul Castro. But that didn't stop him and his friends from building their own antenna to catch radio waves from Miami and listen to American songs.

"We could spend weeks without nothing," he recalls. "And maybe one day, we had a good signal, and we started recording everything: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, everybody."

Gómez and the other members of Tiempo Libre studied music in the same school in Cuba. After graduation, they left the country and went in different directions. Some went to Europe, some to South America. In 1995, Gómez went to Guatemala, where he experienced a mixture of feelings upon arrival.

"So confused and so happy at the same time," he explains. "Because in Cuba, they say the best country in the world is Cuba. Everything else is bad. In Guatemala, they say there's poverty and misery. Yes, they have a lot of that. But they have a lot of good things, too. In every corner, they have a place that you can eat steak. And it's cheap, not expensive at all."

Five years later, Gómez found his way to Miami, and little by little reunited with his friends from school, who had also moved to the city.

At first, they just played together for fun on their spare time (hence, the band's name). Those jam sessions evolved into the formation of Tiempo Libre. In 2004, they released their first independent album, "Timbiando." A year later, they signed to Shanachie Records and released "Arroz con Mango," which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

When Gómez received the phone call about this first nomination, he thought it was a prank.

Gómez told the caller to go to hell, and hung up the phone. When the phone rang again, the caller told him to go online and look for Tiempo Libre's name on the Grammy Awards' website. He couldn't believe it.

"I've never in my life been so unprepared for that call," he says. "I didn't think it was true."

The band has since received two more nominations. They're currently working on their seventh album, which Gómez says includes hip-hop and pop songs, with the usual Cuban flavor.

Tiempo Libre will perform 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St. Tickets cost $40-$45. Call 305-466-8002 or visit AventuraCenter.org.

bduarte@sunsentinel.com, @babicorb or 954-356-4710

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