Music and Night Life - Interview with Gloria Estefan

INTERNATIONAL POP ICON GLORIA ESTEFAN HAS ACHIEVED PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING IN THE MUSIC WORLD, NOT LEAST WINNING SEVEN GRAMMYS, SELLING MORE THAN 100 MILLION ALBUMS AND PERFORMING TO SOLD OUT STADIUMS AROUND THE GLOBE.
A HIT BROADWAY MUSICAL CELEBRATING HER LIFE HAS JUST BEGUN TOURING THE STATES, AND GLORIA AND EMILIO ESTEFAN CELEBRATED THEIR 39th WEDDING ANNIVERSARY LAST MONTH.
THE CULTURED TRAVELLER CHATS WITH THE DR BEAT AND CONGA SINGER ABOUT MAKING IT BIG WITH MIAMI SOUND MACHINE, TOUGH EXPERIENCES GROWING UP IN AN IMMIGRANT FAMILY, HER LIFE-CHANGING ACCIDENT, AND HOW IT FEELS TO WATCH HER PERSONAL LOVE STORY PLAY OUT ON STAGE.

Your family were amongst the first wave of Cuban immigrants fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro to arrive in Miami. What do you remember about this period of your life?I was very young when we came to the United States. My Dad was a police officer for the Cuban Government, so he knew the changes that were coming. He took the ferry to Key West, came to Miami and found us a place to live. At first we lived with his sister, then we found a place of our own, but then he took off for the Bay of Pigs invasion. My Mom knew nothing about it. He left a note, simply saying she was going to be receiving a cheque from the US Government once a month – I think it was for about USD150 – and we had no idea where he was. We subsequently found out he was part of the Bay of Pigs invasion on his 27th birthday. I was about two then.

We lived in an apartment near the Orange Bowl, close to all of my Mom’s friends and their young children. They were a support system for each other, as all of the men had gone off to the invasion. It was kind of like living in a commune: we would go together to get groceries and do laundry, and one car was bought for USD50 that all the women shared. We went through a hurricane together, where all of the women were holed up in our apartment, so we would all be together in case something happened. So, very early on, I learned a lot about camaraderie and the strength of women. When my Dad was in jail I heard it from everyone. He was a political prisoner in Cuba. My Mom tried to tell me he was on a farm. I didn’t want to tell her that I knew the truth, because I thought she believed he was on a farm, so essentially both of us helped each other believe in a more palatable story.

After fighting in the Bay of Pigs invasion and later serving in the US Army in Vietnam, your father developed MS and required round-the-clock care which you helped provide. How did you cope during this time?It was incredibly tough when my Dad got sick. He had been noticing some health issues so my Mom asked him to go to the hospital and get checked-out. He came out of the hospital using a cane, after they did a spinal tap and diagnosed him with MS, but he also had a lot of issues that were not MS-related and was on the list for Agent Orange poisoning. A lot of the guys who were stationed with him in ‘Nam had the same medical problems. The day my Dad was diagnosed my Mom was very afraid and disappeared. We found out that she had been walking for five hours all over the city, lost. We all had to help my Mom due to my Dad’s illness. When I turned 14, we were able to afford a nurse for him until three in the afternoon. When I came home from school, and from then on, I was pretty much in charge of taking care of him and my younger sister when she came back from school. My Mom was working full-time, and then going to the University of Miami to get her teaching credentials revalidated, and she was worried that she wasn’t going to be able to put my sister and me through school. She worked so hard. I knew that it was my goal to help Mom take care of everything that had to be taken care of. What saved me through this time was music. I would lock myself in my room and sing in order to cry. Tears would stream down my face and I would get all my angst and emotions out, because I wanted to be strong for my Mom. I didn’t want her to see that I was hurting, that I was having a tough time. So, music – other people’s music – really got me through this period. I would learn the songs on my guitar, tape them onto cassettes, figure out the chords and just sing. That’s what got me through the toughest moments. Music has always been incredibly healing in my life.

When was the first time you performed on stage?I was about 10 years old and it was at my guitar teacher’s recital. My Mom got me this special dress and these very light blue tights, she did my hair up, and I was petrified! I sat on that stage – thankfully it was in a chair – playing my guitar, and people went crazy when I started singing, but I was dying. It was incredibly difficult for me as it was the first time I had sung for people other than my family. Believe it or not I really don’t like being the centre of attention.

How long did it take you to become truly comfortable regularly performing in front of thousands of people?It took me a good 10 years, which is why I am so thankful that I had that experience with Miami Latin Boys, [which later became] Miami Sound Machine, playing gigs around town. I started in 1975. It was in 1985 when everything really exploded with Dr Beat and Conga. By that point, I had performed in front of audiences as small as one person, and as big as 100,000 people in stadiums in Latin America, because we were very well known there before we crossed over into the US market. I realised I was very shy and didn’t like being the centre of attention, but I knew it was very important for me to put my best foot forward. When I realised that, if I just let people see how I felt about music and relaxed, then everything was going to go well. Eventually when I stepped on a stage it became like stepping into my home.

The strength of your partnership and 39 years of marriage to Emilio Estefan are legendary in musical circles. How did you first meet?I first met Emilio in May of 1975 when I was about to graduate high school. I went to an all-girl Catholic high school and we had two brother schools.  During senior year our parents would go out and have spiritual weekends. One of my friends, who played guitar and sang, wanted to put a band together to play when the parents came back from one of these events. So, knowing me, as we had played at the church and get-togethers at our mutual friends’ houses, he called me over and said he would like me to be the singer. My friend’s father worked at the same place as Emilio and suggested he came along to give us some pointers, as he had a band, the Miami Latin Boys, and they had been playing all over town. In fact, they had just played for the Mayor and they were super successful, so we were all excited to be getting tips from this guy. I remember he brought his accordion along and he was wearing vee-rry short shorts, so when he played, it looked like he was naked, because the accordion covered up his shorts. I was enthralled. I thought he was a lot older than he was because he looked like a very mature dude. I was 17 at the time, Emilio was 21. Anyway, he gave us some pointers and left; we played the gig and everybody went their separate ways. But, that summer, my Mom dragged me to a wedding of the daughter of one of my Dad’s army buddies, and when we walked into the reception, I saw this band playing and the lead guy was playing Do the Hustle on the accordion. Everyone was having a blast and he looked like he was in absolute heaven, playing with his band. And then I realised, ‘Wait a minute, that’s that guy I met a while back’. He asked me to sit in with the band and I sang a couple of old Cuban standards that we both knew. At the end of the night, he asked me if I would like to join his band, because they didn’t have a singer. I told them I couldn’t because I was starting school in September and I already had two jobs – a full-time one and a part-time one – and I knew my Mom wasn’t going to like the idea. But, then, two weeks later, he tracked down my number from the people at the party and called my house, saying, “Look, we just play on weekends, it’s not going to interfere, I would really love you to come to a rehearsal.” So I went with my Mom, Grandma and sister, and, after it was over, he told me he wanted me to join. My Grandma, who was always my staunchest supporter and fan, said: “You need to share your voice with the world because, unless you do so, you’re not going to be happy.” And that’s when I met Emilio.

Your unique blend of dance, salsa and pop not only took the Latin community by storm but also took the world by storm. Did this surprise you and how did you handle the intense attention?Emilio and I were not surprised at all by the fact that our music would work in the United States and all over the world, because we had the best focus groups ever, which were the gigs we were playing in Miami. Miami is an incredibly international community and it’s very mixed culturally. The reason we became very successful in Miami as a gig band is because we could play Latin music, we could play pop music, and then, when we started interjecting our originals, they were a mix of this vocabulary on both sides. We wrote Conga in Holland – we were on promotion for Dr Beat and were inspired by this Dutch audience in a club there. We played I Need a Man, we played Dr Beat, and we were out of material in English, but they were saying, “We want more, we want more”. Emilio took out his accordion and said, “I’m going to play that medley of Cuban congas that we play at the end of the gigs.” I said: “But, they don’t speak Spanish”. He said: “They don’t speak English either, so what’s difference?”, so we played the song, and they went crazy. Standing in an alley at three in the morning, I told my drummer that we needed to write a song based on that rhythm, the legitimate percussion of a conga, you know, with a funk bass line and a dance beat. We returned to Miami, and before we recorded the song, we started playing it live. People would flock to the dance floor as if they were hearing a hit, when they were really hearing a song that was literally brand new. So, we very much believed that we could make it happen. The tough part was convincing the record company, and then radio, to actually play it, because they would say, “It’s too American for the Latins,” and “It’s too Latin for the Americans” – and we would say: “That’s exactly who we are, and we want to stick by our sound. We want to be successful, and who we are.” And, sure enough, we were right – we just had to stick to our guns.

Is there anywhere in the world you would like to perform your music where you haven’t already?In a free Cuba. A free Cuba would mean a Cuba that holds free elections, where the Castro government is out of the picture, where people can choose their future, can choose their representatives, can freely choose to follow their religion, will not be jailed for speaking freely, and where I can truly sing about freedom of speech and not have to worry about speaking words on the stage that will either get me arrested or cause violence in the audience. I pray it will happen in my lifetime; the chances look slimmer right now, but I never lose hope that one day I can sing in my homeland.

How did it feel to receive your first Grammy?I had been nominated six times before I actually received my first Grammy! However, what was very beautiful, was that I received it for Mi Tierra, a seminal album for us. If I had to choose one album only to stay behind in the world, that would be it, because it presented my culture to the world, my roots, the place where our Latin sound came from, that mix of the Anglo and the Cuban which is who I am. When they called our name [to collect the Grammy], we had just performed. I think it was one of the first times a Spanish song had been performed by a band on the Grammys. I was standing backstage and I couldn’t even hear when the announcement was made. So, when I was told I had won, I ran out there and I don’t even remember what I said. It was just one of those moments; a euphoria that is hard to describe, especially because it was an album that was in my native language and had such incredible acclaim all over, and still does. I will never forget that night since it was one of the most beautiful nights, professionally, in my life.

Why do you think so many millions of people around the world connect with you and your music?I’ve thought a lot as to what it is about our music that people connect to, especially so many different people. I think it’s the rhythm. I think we all have a very guttural and basic reaction to rhythm. Lyrics can be secondary, but when you throw down a song that people can move their bodies to, and dance to, that really breaks the ice, and it doesn’t matter what culture you’re talking about. After we produced a couple of songs that were rhythmic, it was important for me to do a ballad, because that’s the kind of stuff I loved to write. By the time Words Get In The Way came out, our first big hit as a ballad, people already knew us as a dance band. Although they tried to keep us in that hole, and the record company really wanted us to keep doing what was successful, we made it a point to do something that was beyond that, because we knew that ultimately it would free us up to create and produce the kind of music that we loved, which was not just dance music. I have always tried to write about subjects that are human in nature: love, losing love, getting it back. I stay away from politics and religion. Although I have written some songs with social commentary, talking about freedom of speech, I prefer music that bridges and unites. I have stayed away from political themes because music was my escape from all that – I lived a very political life with my Dad, with Bay of Pigs and then Vietnam, and my music was an escape from those hard times.

You were at the height of your fame in March 1990, when your tour bus was hit by an out-of-control tractor trailer on a snowy Pennsylvania highway. You suffered massive injuries and were told you may spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. How did you get through the experience, and were you able to derive anything positive from it?I derived a lot of incredibly beautiful experiences from this terrible accident, and from being paralysed. Number one, the power of prayer. I had literally millions of people all over the world praying for me, and I can tell you that I felt like I was plugged into the wall and being energised by those prayers. I absorbed them into my body, imagined and visualised them reconnecting my nerves. I didn’t know at the time that this type of visualisation is used in the recovery of injured and ill people. My prime motivation was to do as much as I could to prevent my family going through what I went through with my Dad. I knew that if I had to face being in a chair, I would, but I did everything in my power [to aid my recovery] in rehab. I was in rehab for six or seven hours every day, getting massages, doing bio feedback. Love, prayers and support got me through this tough period. My husband didn’t leave my side for three months. My family and so many people were part of my recuperation, as well as, ultimately, my music. After three months I went to the studio, because Emilio had asked me to. He had an idea that he had written down on the day of the accident, when we were being transported to New York. He had written out the words ‘coming out of the dark’ as he was in one helicopter and I was in the medivac. It was a grey day and there was a ray of light that kept hitting him in the eyes, so he wrote down this phrase. Three months later he found the piece of paper, called [singer songwriter] Jon Secada and went to the studio. Emilio told me, “I would really love for you to come and work on this”, because he knew that music had always been a healing force in my life. He wanted to get me away from the constant rehab and to focus on something positive. When I got to the studio, Emilio and Jon were there, and they sang me the melody to Coming Out Of The Dark and a couple of lines that they had written. This feeling washed over me of incredible thankfulness to everyone who had sent a good thought or a prayer my way, and literally that’s what the song is about. It took us 15 minutes to write it, and it is a big thank you to every person who took time out of their life and their day, and went to their places of worship, just to make life better for me and to send me good and positive thoughts. I knew that I wasn’t alone, and that was instrumental in my recuperation.

Please tell us one of the most memorable moments of your Miami Sound Machine days?Oh my gosh, there were so many! I would say the biggest highlight was stepping back on stage on 1st March 1991, having broken my back, been paralysed and told that I would probably never walk again, much less get back on a stage. That night is the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. It was about regaining my life, it was getting back my independence, it was reclaiming what I was meant to do on this earth, which was to entertain and sing; and, also, to be an example to people that, no matter what happens in your life, it all depends on how you deal with it, and you can always fight your way back, no matter how difficult the odds.

How did your life story and 1987 hit ‘Anything for You’ come to be a Broadway musical ‘On Your Feet!’? Was the process of charting yours and Emilio’s journey from anonymity in Cuba to stardom in the United States, for the theatre, an emotional process?It was an incredibly emotional process to sit down and decide, first of all, what story we were going to tell about our lives, because you need to follow one thread. Alex Dinelaris, who wrote our book, was brilliant. He spent a year and a half just talking with Emilio and I, my Mom and people who are pertinent to our lives, then he went away and wrote. I told him to choose the songs himself, because our songs are like our kids – it’s impossible to decide what goes in and what goes out. The first time we sat down and listened to the actors read the parts, I thought I was going to be able to keep control. At one part, I was hearing the actor playing my Dad singing one of the first songs I ever wrote for Miami Sound Machine (it’s pretty obscure, only real fans are going to know When Someone Comes Into Your Life), the tears started welling up and I looked to Emilio for emotional support, and he was already bawling like a baby! I cried more in the two years creating the musical than in my entire life, but they were tears of joy, of thankfulness, of feeling blessed that we were able to share our story with so many people, and hoping that, when people left the theatre, they would take that with them. This has been the case, because I have heard from so many people that, being part of the show, they had reclaimed one of their dreams that they had given up, or fixed a situation with a family member, or just had sheer joy as an immigrant revelling in the fact that we can live the American dream in this country. It has been an incredibly emotional journey.

What was it like the first time you and Emilio watched your lives played out on stage in front of an audience?My heart pounded hard the first time I watched that show in front of an audience, which was in Chicago. My sister was sitting next to me, I was holding her hand, because she had seen nothing about it, and when our ‘Dad’ stepped on stage and started singing, we both broke down. I can’t tell you the nerves, the excitement, the pride, the fear; it was just a plethora of emotions that I will never forget.

‘On Your Feet!’ is currently touring the States for 80 weeks, including dates in Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as your hometown of Miami. What is the show’s core message?A love story to music. It’s a story about love between a man and a woman, love for this country, yet without forgetting about the country where we were born; it’s about family; it’s about the American dream, and it’s about two people struggling to make their dream come true. Basically it’s all these things wrapped up in a beautifully choreographed package.

Aside from your music and ‘On Your Feet!’, your business empire includes a football team, restaurants and hotels, and you also somehow find time to publicly advocate against repression, defend human rights and fight against violence. How do you juxtapose your time to be such a good businesswoman, wife, mother and public speaker?My key word in life is balance, and Emilio and I are a good partnership, so we help each other as much as we can in everything. It’s crucial to me to give back. We are in a privileged position to have a voice because people know us, and there have been moments in my life where I have felt it is very important to stand up for what I feel is right. I will always do that, although sometimes it’s not easy to do. Even though I am never going to lecture people on how they should live or what they should do, and you are never going to hear any lectures in my music, you are definitely going to hear an opinion if I feel it is necessary to raise my voice.

Your daughter, Emily, taught herself drums, guitar and keyboards by ear, graduated from Berklee College of Music, performed her first concert as a Festival Miami headliner in January of this year, and a few days later released her sophisticated jazz-pop-funk debut album ‘Take Whatever You Want’. What did you feel when you first heard Emily’s music and watched her perform?The first time I ever heard Emily sing was a very unique experience because basically she never sang. She played drums, she played guitar and piano, but she would stay far away from stepping into Mommy’s territory. I think she was afraid to sound too much like me. So, we were alone very early one morning at our beach house. She had come back from her first break after being away for a semester at school in Boston, and she told me, “Mom, I need to do something. I need to sing for you, but you can’t look at me and you can’t cry”. Of course, I broke both those promises! She would always say, “I don’t sing, I don’t sing” – notice she didn’t say she couldn’t sing – but apparently, she hadn’t even tried. What I heard come out of that baby girl’s mouth blew me away. She was mature; it sounded like somebody who had been singing for a lifetime. It was mind-blowing. She went back to school and, within two weeks, started sending me completely produced tracks. She would call me or text me at two in the afternoon and say, “Mom, I have an idea for a song. Are you going to be up late?” and I would say, “Yeah.” I was always up late waiting. At two in the morning, she would send me a completely produced track, recorded by herself in her apartment, and that is where that album came from. She started writing and recording songs, never imagining they would become her first effort, which was Take Whatever You Want. Whilst I am very objective, she is just amazing. She is the best musician in the family, a unique singer and an amazing writer as well. Not just a songwriter, but a real writer.

Are there any aspects of the notoriously harsh music industry which, as parents, you and Emilio would have preferred to protect Emily from?Well, of course we want to protect Emily, and our son as well, but once you make a choice about what you want to do, you have to learn in your own skin. It is a completely different industry now. Emily has a lot of freedom and there is a lot of opportunity to get your music out there. At the same time, everything is fragmented, so you don’t reach the numbers that we did once you are signed to a big label; that just doesn’t exist anymore. But, what I always tell her is, “You need to share your passion and your music with the world. You are fortunate to be able to do it, and just make sure you stay true to yourself.” We will be there to support her in every way possible, especially because we know a lot of the ins and outs of the business, but we can’t possibly compare life now in the music industry to life as we knew it, especially when we started. She has to walk that path on her own and make her own decisions. She is very clear on who she is and what she wants to do, so I’m not worried in that respect. We will always be here, supporting her 1000 per cent. My son, [Nayib], I am proud to say, is more on the movie side. He has created a cultural phenomenon here in Miami – he is attempting to save 35mm as the world goes digital, and he has his own events space where he celebrates cult films and 35mm movies. Despite the fact that we are a very tight knit family, I think we have been able to get through to our kids the importance of walking their own paths.

What is your favourite hotel in the world to visit, relax and recharge?There are so many places that I have loved, I can’t single out just one. But I have several favourite hotels where we always stay because, simply stated, they feel like home. The May Fair Hotel in London; the iconic Westin Palace in Madrid which is more than a century old; and the Sunset Marquis Hotel in the heart of Los Angeles. To me, the most important things when travelling are to have a comfortable bed, a wonderful shower with lots of pressure and hot, hot water – basically temperature control at my fingertips – and a place to put my bags.

We spent quite a bit of money buying excellent mattresses and beautiful linens for our hotels – Costa d’Este in Vero Beach and Cardozo South Beach on Ocean Drive. Both are in plum locations on the Miami beachfront.

What’s next for Gloria Estefan?Hopefully, a nice long vacation. Even though I say this all the time, I have never really been able to travel the world as a tourist – I was always working. Everybody else could see things, but I had to stay quiet, locked away, so I wouldn’t get sick. I would truly love to re-travel the world, just as a tourist.