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Interview: Gloria Estefan opens up about new album Brazil305 and looks back at her iconic album Mi Tierra

Gloria Estefan is one of the pioneers of pop music, breaking down barriers and opening doors for many artists that followed in her footsteps.

Rising to prominence as part of Miami Sound Machine, Estefan transitioned into a hugely success solo career. The Cuban-born singer/songwriter has paved the way for Latin music to find a global audience and with her new record Brazil305, she’s revisiting some of her biggest hits and reimagining them with Brazilian rhythms.

I spoke to Gloria recently to talk about the inspiration behind Brazil305, discuss the big risk she took releasing her iconic album Mi Tierra, and find out how her experience has been with Broadway smash On Your Feet…

Hi Gloria. I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we last spoke ahead of your headline show at the Royal Albert Hall. How are you keeping during these crazy times?

Oh my gosh, I guess like everybody else at the beginning of this, I thought ‘OK, it’s gonna be a few weeks so let me make them as useful as possible since I’m at home and locked down’ so I cleaned out my attic, 30 years worth of stuff that was up there and it was a major mess. I got rid of things. I did closets that I had always planned on doing and never had time to do. Then as things started getting extended, I realised it let me stay in touch more with my fans through social media. I got enlisted by one of my best friends, who’s one of the top infectious disease doctors in the nation, to do a ‘Put on Your Mask’ parody of Get on Your Feet. She reached out to me and she said, ‘Glo, I know you do these funny things. I’m trying to urge the government to put out a statement that our only true these recourse here is to wear masks. It’s the only public service measure besides washing hands and the six feet distance that we have that can protect everyone.

I got another call that same day from a friend that was making masks and I thought, ‘this is the universe enlisting me’. I wrote the song and we did the video in two days on a green screen that I had bought three years previous and had never used. I put out a song that was inspired by my son, and this pandemic, called We Needed Time and I shot the video from my boat. I wanted to capture the insane solitude of Miami Beach that I had never in my life seen and the nature that was being reborn as we had the cruise ships off the water and less airplanes. I tried to stay connected and tried to connect with fans and boost their spirits.

The album, which was supposed to come out, Brazil305, was supposed to come out in 2017 and then my mom got ill and passed, and I just couldn’t bring myself to sing. It took over a year before I could approach that, and I’m glad because I wanted joy to be prevalent on this record and joy was not what I was feeling at that moment. Then we were going to put it out last fall but COVID happened. Then we moved it to February and the George Floyd situation happened. I didn’t want to be disrespectful and just barrel through with a release of an album. But then after that I thought we need some joy and we need some balance. I thought music has gotten me through so much so I wanted to put some of that joy out there again and at least give people something to listen to while we’re all going through this. It’s crazy.

Brazil305 is perfect for this time. There is so much joy in the songs on this record. Where did the inspiration for the album come from?

I’ve always been a lover of Brazilian music, from my mother’s record collection when I was a baby that had Jobim and Stan Getz and those beautiful orchestral arrangements that were so big in the ’60s with Brazilian music went around the world and became a part of the mainstream of many different countries. Then when I joined the band (Miami Sound Machine) at 17, Ilearned five or six songs in Portuguese that I loved, classics that I had been listening to because I thought it would expand our market. When I recorded our first album, I did a Brazilian tune in Spanish. We did an album in ’82 called Rio where I also wrote Spanish lyrics to a lot of hits of the time in Brazil.

I’ve always loved it and Afo Verde from Sony knows this because he’s not only in my record company, but he’s a fan. He asked me in 2016 what I thought about the idea of taking some of my biggest hits and reimagining them, and re-recording them in Brazil with the top musicians and arrangers of the time now. I said, ‘I would love to but I still want to put some original tunes on the record to offer something new to the fans’. We started working on that and it was so exciting for me to go in and re-record some hits, some of them that are three decades (old), now with life under my belt and in a new flavour. The origins of both Brazilian and Cuban music are African, which is why Conga is Afro Cuban rhythms with a funk baseline and in a 2/4 dance beat, and Rhythm is Gonna Get You and Dr. Beat similarly. We knew those would work incredibly well. Through the years I’ve done a lot of different Samba arrangements to my music live so that’s where the idea came about. I really love this exploration.

We did a documentary where we went down to Brazil and I interviewed the greats of Samba. Monika, who established the second largest Samba school and all of his musicians that are octogenarians. The Celia Cruz of Brazil, Alcione who is in her 70s and was the first woman accepted to do Samba because it was a very male-centric genre, even though the originators of Samba were women. The video for Cuando Hay Amor, was shot with these descendants. They inherit that position, that very cultural tradition of the Bahianas. It was really an amazing experience to talk about the socio-political roots of Samba and what an amazing, not just rhythm, but way of communicating it was. The original slaves that got taken from the Yoruba Tribe to Brazil and to Cuba. Experiencing these African roots, had I been born in Brazil, perhaps my music would have sounded like this. It was a really interesting project for me, even on an intellectual level.

Gloria Estefan
Credit: Sony Music

This album feels like a natural progression for you as your music has incorporated these sounds and rhythms. You mentioned that it was easy to select some of the songs for the record but how did you choose the others to include?

It was a challenge because there were so many we wanted to put on. For example, we would have loved to do Coming Out of the Dark but when we started experimenting with it, it’s such a song that the music itself is a part of the message – the gospel and soul-tinged sound – that it really didn’t work for me in any other rhythm so I didn’t want to touch that one. The no brainers like Rhythm and Conga because they have that same African root, and the Bossanovas and the things that were done with the ballads were spectacular. We did choose to go the route of those big orchestral arrangements of the ’60s that first put Brazilian music on the world map, as an homage to that sound and that time, and they worked wonderfully. They took it to Brazil and also started sending me tracks that would work, and they all just fit so naturally that that’s part of the message; that at the route we’re all very similar and that we all share different feelings and different evolutions of music, but at the core is rhythm, which was our first communication in human beings everywhere in the world.

That message is so important right now. In some ways the pandemic has brought us closer together and I think it could be the first time, in my lifetime, that people are realising we’re all similar…

That was part of the idea. I mean, obviously the pandemic wasn’t around when we envisioned doing this but the message of unity was always at the core. The fact that really, if you go back, we all come from Africa, right? We share our DNA and because everyone went elsewhere, the differences became our cultural differences but we are at the core the same. That’s why we wanted to express that musically by taking songs that had been known all over the world in a certain way and reimagining them in a different way so people could see that they do work quite naturally and they can still be as beautiful with a different feeling.

You launched this project with Cuando Hay Amor. Why did you decide to lead with that song?

We originally were going to lead the project with Rhythm is Gonna Get You because I wanted people to have a clear idea that this was songs reimagined, and English is a language that really goes across the world. After the George Floyd protests here, and the sadness of all the losses from COVID for people throughout the world, I really felt it was important to put out a message of joy that would have an accompanying joyful video to go with it, which we shot pre-COVID thank God girls or else I would have been in trouble trying to get images to visually express the album. I called Sony and I said, ‘look, I really want this song to be the single. I know that it’s in Spanish and it might hurt some of the places where you’re going to release it because they may not be playing anything in Spanish, but it’s really important visually and message wise for me to say when there is love’.

We need that so much right now. We need to deal with each other with love and kindness. The fear and the things that we’re seeing right now are dividing people a lot and causing a lot of pain and fear so I wanted to counteract that with that song, which is why I chose it. Also, culturally in the video I’m on the banks of Lake Abaete, which is where Samba was born. These women that are dancing around me in the video, the Bahianas, that’s where Samba came from, the original Bahianas that would wash the clothes on the banks of that river and improvise songs that later became what the world knew as Samba. Those positions are handed down family-to-family, those ladies and girls are all family of the original Bahianas.

Culturally it’s a very important tradition for them. This rhythm that I’m doing, the Samba de Roda, in the song was born from religious ceremonies where at the end of it, someone would get in the middle of the circle and dance, and everybody would improvise around them. If it was a woman in the centre of the circle, it had to be all women around her. There’s a lot of cultural significance in the video that is expressed and it’s full of joy. We shot all over Brazil, in Rio and São Paolo and there in Bahia, with people smiling and dancing and just celebrating life.

Throughout your career you’ve been a pioneer in terms of paving the way for artists who are recording in languages other than English. It’s because of you that those artists are able to reach a global audience. What is it like to have that legacy and impact?

Well for me, it’s a beautiful thing to be bilingual… trilingual I speak French as well. I’ve recorded in French and recorded in Portuguese, but culturally being Cuban-born and for my kids and for our legacy, it’s important to keep that alive for me. It’s funny because it obviously doubles your work every time I do some kind of post on Instagram or any social media, I always get (people commenting), ‘Spanish? Wheres the Spanish?’ (laughs) so I end up doing it in both languages. Lately, I’ve taken to doing Spanglish, which kind of mixes them both so that way I don’t have to do two completely separate things. It’s an honour and a privilege for me to be able to do that.

When we put out the Mi Tierra album, I was at the peak of my pop career and they thought we were crazy. A lot of people told me, ‘you are taking a risk that is insane. You should ride that wave of your pop success’ and I said, ‘that’s specifically why I want to release Mi Tierra right now because who knows in a few years, nobody’s gonna care and my pop career will be done, and then it would be crazy to release something like this. I want people that are curious now about my music, and who I am, to listen to this totally roots-oriented album so they can see where the influences came from that allowed me to do something like Conga or Rhythm is Gonna Get You, and the things that we did to make that fusion happen’.

It was a risk at that moment but to us, it wasn’t. We knew that our fans and the people that really loved music would be very open to an album that was so musical and so roots-oriented as Mi Tierra and later on Ry Cooder had huge success with Buena Vista Social Club. Mi Tierra came out before that album and the difference was that Ry Cooder’s album was these original guys and music that was from the ’40s. What we did with Mi Tierra is we wrote completely original music that sounded like it came from that era, the golden age of music, as far as I’m concerned in Cuba. It was done very purposely.

I can safely say you’re responsible for expanding my musical horizons. The first CD my family ever owned was Cuts Both Ways and I was always drawn to the Spanish tracks. Since then I’ve discovered many more Spanish-language artists and been learning to speak Spanish too so thank you for that…

Oh, my gosh, that makes me feel so happy. One of the things that I find, and that my mother was thrilled about because she was a teacher – she had a PhD in education and I called the Real Academia like in Spain, because she was a stickler about all that – how many people have come up to her and come up to me and told us that they learned Spanish because of my music, and they wanted to know what I was saying, and they discovered a whole new world. That is really an honour for me, thank you very much for sharing that. That makes me very happy. I think that when we do learn another language, other than our own, we open our heart up to more than just the language. We open our hearts and minds to the culture, to the people, to other ways of thinking because things in different languages are expressed in different ways. I really think it just makes us much more open on a human level.

Gloria Estefan
Credit: Sony Music

Spanish for me, it’s the most beautiful language so hearing somebody singing in Spanish, there’s just nothing else like it…

You know what? It’s romantic. It comes from the romance languages of course but there’s a lot of very soft sounds and we take longer to express a thought. For example, in Spanish there’s three different words for love. In English, there’s only love. In Spanish you have Amor, Cariño, Deseo, Afecto and they are more nuanced in expressing emotion. There is no such thing as being too sweet in Spanish. I know that in English, certain things can be viewed as saccharine or overly sweet, and I’m very careful sometimes writing ballads in English, they’re a little bit more cerebral. But in Spanish, we have so much nuance for emotions and that I think changes the delivery and changes the sounds of it.

One of your other successes I wanted to touch upon was the musical On Your Feet. It’s been critically-acclaimed across the world and was due to be touring in the UK this year. What’s that experience been like for you?

We were very fortunate. It’s always a big risk when you do something like that, especially moving from the pop world into the world of Broadway. It’s been a little more open in the recent past through the success of ABBA’s Mamma Mia, which kicked it all off really, and Broadway having to expand its audience. You always take a risk when you do something like that. The writer of the book, Alex Dinelaris, was absolutely phenomenal. He won an Oscar for Birdman. Thankfully he won it after he did our show or we wouldn’t have been able to afford him (laughs) and he wouldn’t have had the time. He approached it from a very human level. When he pitched the idea, he wasn’t even sold on doing it. It’s when he talked to me about it, is when he got convinced to do it. It was important to tell some truths and make it very much about the human story.

We surprise people, when they go to the show, they expect one thing and they come out with what they wanted, but with a lot more. We take them on an emotional journey and I think that has been the success of the show. The music is the music, it’s going to entertain you, there are the hits that people recognise, but they weren’t aware of the backstory. Alex spoke to us for a couple of years; Emilio, me and my mother. I told (my mother), ‘mom, I’m going to tell the truth so you need to buckle your seatbelt for this’. We’ve always been very private. I had never spoken about the fact that when I took my sister on the road with me (my mother) spent two years where she didn’t speak to me because she felt that I was abandoning her or taking my last remaining family member where in essence, I was taking my sister because I needed to. She was getting into some trouble and I had always been like my sister’s mom. I think that people identify with someone on that stage.

There’s a father and daughter story between my dad and me, there’s a strong woman’s story. There’s three generations with my grandmother, my mother and me. People get a lot of backstory. The fans realised a lot of things they didn’t know. We were just very fortunate that it really did move people and hopefully it’ll get back on its feet. I don’t think it’ll be in the near future because we all know the trouble that is being felt by our live theatre industry, because of the size of the theatres and the inability to do something with physical distancing. It’s just been a brutal time for so many people all over the world but particularly entertainment, and people that have no way of making a living, especially people that do theatre. I always send a lot of prayers and keep my hopes up that one day we’ll be able to get back on stage and finish that tour.

I’m still hoping to see the show in the future. We also need to get you back over here as it’s been so long since you performed in the UK…

I know! I did The Standards at the Royal Albert Hall which was always such a hope of mine that I would get to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. It was one of the most magical nights. I don’t know if it was because it was a full moon and people kinda go crazy. It was so memorable. I performed it with a huge orchestra and did not just the songs from The Standards but also my hits. The audience was phenomenal. It was one of the nights that will really stand out in my memory so I hope to come back and do something at some point. It was definitely in the works and then COVID happened, and a lot of the plans have been had to be put on hold. I was gonna go to the Glastonbury Festival and there was all these plans that we’ll have to wait, but hopefully, in a year or two, maybe we can re-approach that.

Gloria Estefan’s new album Brazil305 is released August 13th on Sony Music. Watch the video for Cuando Hay Amor below:

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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