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6 Degrees Entertainment

Title - 'My Secret Radio' (Sony Music)
Artist - Tiempo Libre

Turn on "My Secret Radio," and don't sit down. Spiky and sassy, roiling with the hand-over-fist keyboards of bandleader Jorge Gómez, and pushed by Joaquin Diaz's pan suave-sweet vocals, Tiempo Libre proves, once again, the evolving power of what Gómez calls "timba grown on American soil."

There may be no better way to understand the Cuban diaspora than through the rambunctious rhythms and "throw yourself into your life!" harmonies of Gómez and his buddy Cuban expats, who reassembled in Miami to form the three-time Grammy-nominated Tiempo Libre after making their separate escapes from Castro's Cuba. And once more, the guys are hitting their audiences with as much meaning as music.

These men, as welcoming and personable as their music is moving, can recall boyhood nights spent on hot Havana rooftops using coat-hanger wire to pull in outlawed US radio broadcasts. Hence the album-closing conga kicker "Mi Antenna," with which drummer Armando (Pututi) Arce and the boys are going to be getting live-concert crowds up onto busy feet, you watch.

Those "Secret Radio" hits by Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, and, naturally, Gloria Estefan, became mixed up in these kids' souls' songs at a formative moment. Some were attending the Escuela Nacional de Arte and Amadeo Roldan conservatory. And it's their legitimate-music groundwork that today fuels a trademark precision, a sound never less than rigorously clean both in the studio and onstage.

The fuse lit by teenage nocturnal contraband on "My Secret Radio" slams your senses in a controlled explosion. The ebullience and heartache of this liberating collection of new work glistens at times with what dances like sweat but might be tears, the heart's hindsight for cherished ties.

Diaz's lead on "Ahora Te Quieres Ir" ("And Now You Want to Go") is masterfully mournful. Guest Rachelle Fleming sings a plaintive workup of "After the Love is Gone" as a wistful cha-cha.

I'm particularly glad to hear the guys all singing in so many tracks on "Secret Radio," one of Tiempo Libre's most faithful and defining elements. Listen for the canny conversation of these self-assured, eloquent artists in "Mi Gente" ("My People"), "San Antonio," "Mechánica" ("More Is Less"), and, of course, "Prende La Radio" ("Turn on the Radio"), all of them rollicking counterpoints to the haunting quiet of real loss in bassist Tebelio Fonte's "Como Hace Años" ("Just Like Years Ago").

If I could have offered a word of advice, I think I'd have suggested the group focus entirely on these inspirations of the past. They've mixed in several references to their American lives ("San Antonio," for example), musically solid but mildly complicating to the album's concept. Maybe I'm just wishing we'd had two CDs out of them, Cuban-boyhood and U.S.-manhood.

As Sony Masterworks chief Alex Miller has said, this new CD "reminds us all how lucky we are to live a life of creative freedom while acknowledging the influences which make us who we are." Exactly.

And I'm luckier than most when it comes to Tiempo Libre. I've had chances as a journalist to see these musicians working in both popular and classical-music contexts, to be with them in Miami rehearsals, to interview them. If what they're sharing with us here lets us in on a kind of private language born in the dreams of youth, I've always found they had a singular patois ready. As Gómez once described timba to me for a story, "When you get that mix, it sounds like 'tah-bababala-yow' and then 'toon-get-tacka-teek.'"

And he was right. It really does sound like that. Remember I warned you. Don't even try to sit down.

Review by: Porter Anderson