Gloria Estefan: "Like Coming Home, But Not to the Old Cuba"

Her story reads like the plot of an old Hollywood musical.

Her father, José Fajardo, was the bodyguard to the wife of Cuban president Batista -- but when Gloria was just 16 months old, Castro's revolution forced the family to flee its homeland. José joined the United States Army and served as an officer in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, ten-year-old Gloria became his nurse and looked after her younger sister while her mother worked.

At 17, Gloria sang a few songs at a wedding. Though shy, she came to life on stage; soon she was the singer of that band, the Miami Sound Machine. She got more than a job. In the spring of 1978, she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Miami; a few months later, on her 22nd birthday, she married the band's leader, Emilio Estefan, Jr.

The Estefans' musical vision was something new: a blend of disco, salsa and pop. With success, Gloria got top billing, then sole billing. But at the peak, a dramatic reversal -- a bus crash left her critically injured. Rehabilitation took a year.

By the '90s, the world had caught on to the Latin sound, and it was clear that Gloria Estefan was its muse. Now, at 50, she's the most successful crossover performer in the history of Latin music. And, with 90 Millas, a CD inspired by the songs her parents loved, she's come full circle.

The Estefans wrote the songs. They assembled the greatest supporting cast imaginable, starting with the giants of old: Johnny Pacheco, Candido Camero, Papo Lucca, Nelson Gonzalez, Cachao, Paqutio D'Rivera, Generoso Jimenez and Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros. Then they gathered the best of the new breed: Carlos Santana, José Feliciano, Arturo Sandoval, Giovanni Hidalgo, La India and Sheila E. This result is the kind of historically authentic but technically contemporary CD you'd expect from Ry Cooder, the world music impresario who organized and produced Buena Vista Social Club.

"90 Millas" should thrill Cubans, here and on the island. It will surely delight old fans. And for listeners like me, who tended to think of Gloria Estefan primarily as a singer who makes hit after hit after hit, it's a pleasant surprise to discover that she's a serious artist. That belated appreciation made me extremely interested in talking to her about this music.

Jesse Kornbluth: I've read that "90 Millas" is the CD that you were "born to make." Why?

Gloria Estefan: My family was musical on both sides. My father's family had a famous flautist and a classical pianist. My mother won a contest to be Shirley Temple's double -- she was the diva of the family. At 8, I learned how to play guitar. I used to play songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s in the kitchen for my grandmother.

After my dad was a prisoner in Cuba for two years, we moved to Texas, where I was the only Hispanic in the class. I remember hearing "Ferry Cross the Mersey," by Gerry and the Pacemakers, and thinking, "That had bongos and maracas -- that was really a bolero." And The Beatles song, "Till There was You".....also Latin.

I wrote poetry, which got me into lyrics. Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Elton John pulled me into pop. I started singing with a band -- just for fun -- when I was 17. And pretty soon, I was thinking I could sing pop in English as well as Spanish. And as you know, we did that and broke through. But we waited until 1993 to release Mi Tierra -- we wanted my fans to be ready for the traditional Cuban music. And then we kept adding: more Cuban influences, more Latin America. And, underneath it all, African drums and rhythm.

The concept of "90 Millas" starts with the sound of the '40s. We invited 25 masters of Latin music -- giants on the cutting edge of creation, musicians who pushed it out to the world, young Cuban artists and Puerto Ricans who are huge -- so we could blend cultures and generations. So it is like coming home, but not exactly to the old Cuba.

Kornbluth: Why did it take two years?

Estefan: Emilio and I like projects to breathe and grow. We started with a concept -- write songs, make demos, then let the guest stars listen to them and then affect the writing process. For José Feliciano, I had written a chorus and a bit of a melody. He started playing the chorus and ad-libbing. I went, "This is the shit! Forget my melody!" Carlos Santana worked just the other way. He wanted me to record a polished take of my singing first, so his playing could recreate my emotion.

Kornbluth: How emotional was this CD to write?

Estefan: I got goose bumps. Like in "Esperando," which is addressed to Cubans on the island. Those of us in America, we're like the bogeyman, but I wanted Cubans at home to know: Whatever happened doesn't matter. The future is for us to heal. And also: Because we're here, we latch onto any part of our culture.

Kornbluth: I can't tell: Is this a political record?

Estefan: Yes and no. Politics is life, so yes. But it's not specific. Saying that 90 miles haven't divided us sends a message about freedom for Cuba -- and for everyone.

Kornbluth: You were too young to remember life in Cuba. What do you know?

Estefan: My father rarely spoke of life before. About prison, he just said, "That man is a genius at PR." Castro would come to the jail in the middle of the night and ask the prisoners, "What are you doing here? Don't you see we're trying to do the right thing?"

The reason I'm not more political is because I have music. And from a young age, I needed it. After prison, my father came to America, joined the Army, fought in Vietnam -- and was exposed to Agent Orange. He died a slow, horrible death. Music was my escape.

Kornbluth: You announced that your 2004 tour was your last. But aren't you tempted to tour with this music?

Estefan: The 2004 tour hasn't ended! I still have to finish Latin America and Europe.

Kornbluth: Celia Cruz died before you recorded "90 Millas". Do you wish you'd started this project earlier so she could have been involved?

Estefan: We were good friends. Emilio did her first video; we wrote a song for her. I would have loved to have had her on this CD. But she was there. I felt her. That's the beauty of a legacy.

Kornbluth: How do we hear her in you?

Estefan: Celia was economical and tasty in her choices. And in the pocket like you wouldn't believe?

Kornbluth: "In the pocket"?

Estefan: It's a rhythm, from son music. To have it is to be locked in, like a tuned engine. Once you're in the pocket, you're free. That's why, for most of these songs, I sang and I sang until I had the emotion, then... one take.

Kornbluth: You do a duet with La India. I noticed, on your website, she's described as the heiress to Celia Cruz. That's very generous. Couldn't you just as legitimately claim that title -- especially after this CD?

Estefan: You can't give yourself a title! That's crazy! If I ever start talking like that, please put me out of my misery. I don't care if I'm 80, with my butt to my ankles, put me down.

Kornbluth: You were the first pop singer to perform for a Pope.

Estefan: And a woman at that. Apparently Pope John Paul II and his boys -- is that what you call them? -- loved one of my songs and thought I was putting spiritual messages in my music. I'm not religious as such. Dogma and I don't get along. They knew all that, but the Pope was celebrating 50 years as a priest, and he asked for me. Quite an audience -- bishops, cardinals, a handful of nuns -- and me, covered from neck to ankles.

Kornbluth: Would you like to be the first pop singer to perform in Cuba when Castro and his boys go?

Estefan: One of them. I know the list is huge. And it would be hard to pull off -- I'd have a lump as big as a tostone [fried green plantain] in my throat. But oh my God, what a dream -- it would be the height of my personal and professional career.

Kornbluth: I can understand having that as a target. The irony, for me, is that this is the most universal CD you've made. If I'm right about that, then "90 Millas" is yet another crossover for you -- into World Music.

Estefan: I can see that. The core is African rhythm -- half the world's music comes from that. The difference between our music and American blues: Cubans may have been slaves, but in Cuba, slaves became part of the family. They could buy their freedom. And these are island people. Island people are happier.

But, you know, in the '80s, when we released "Conga," wasn't that World Music? Everywhere we went, people got it. And why? The drums. So maybe all music is World Music, and the only question is: Do you like it?

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