Gloria Estefan interview: get On Your Feet!

Gloria Estefan has turned her life story into a musical
Gloria Estefan has turned her life story into a musical
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The Latin legend brings her musical life story to Scotland

Say ‘Gloria Estefan’ and the response is most likely to be ‘Get On Your Feet!’ accompanied by a shoulder shimmy and wriggle of 
the hips.

Philippa Stefani as Gloria Estefan and George Ioannides as Emilio in Get On Your Feet!

Philippa Stefani as Gloria Estefan and George Ioannides as Emilio in Get On Your Feet!

The song, along with the Cuban-born singer’s other international chart topping hits – Rhythm is Gonna Get You, Conga, Don’t Wanna Lose You and 1-2-3, – is what made Estefan, husband Emilio and the Miami Sound Machine famous in the 1980s, filling the charts and clubs with a new pioneering Latin crossover dance sound, fusing Cuban rhythms with pop and disco.

Continuing as a solo artist and selling over 100 million records worldwide, Estefan’s success is not just in English, but in Spanish too, making her the most successful Latin crossover performer in pop. As well as 38 dance-floor filling number ones across the Billboard charts, her song Music of My Heart was Oscar-nominated and together with Emilio, she has won 26 Grammys.

“I sing about issues that unite us all, like gaining love, losing love. And then there’s rhythm,” says Estefan, speaking to me from her Miami home. “Rhythm does not need to be understood. It either moves you or it doesn’t. Drums were the original communication and I think percussion transcends barriers. Also we could speak English which in music stretches across many different countries, as well as Spanish and I think that’s why we were a success.”

The musical version of the Gloria and Emilio story, On Your Feet!, is also a crowdpleaser. Two years on Broadway, then a US tour, Japan and now, Europe, the show is heading north from the West End, to get Scotland on its feet with dates in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

In the dressing room with the Miami Sound Machine in the 1980s

In the dressing room with the Miami Sound Machine in the 1980s

“Every time I tour the UK, I play Scotland,” says Estefan, “and we always go to little bars that have live music to experience the local ambience and atmosphere.”

So if you think that couple sitting in your local watching the open mic look familiar, try belting out a little Rhythm is Gonna Get You and see what happens.

Starring Philippa Stefani as Gloria and George Ioannides as Emilio, directed by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), it follows the true story of the Estefans’ lives and music, from Cuban roots, to making music in Miami and decades of success.

Now aged 62, a grandmother and still married to Emilio, Estefan is delighted with the response to the musical, partly because she and Emilio had such a big input. Writer Alex Dinelaris spent a year and a half talking to them to get their story, but at first there was a problem.

Estefan winning a Grammy in 1996. Picture: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

Estefan winning a Grammy in 1996. Picture: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

“He said you guys are a nightmare because there’s no conflict. So I go, ‘let me introduce you to my mother!’ I told her, we have to be honest with the story and she was very forthcoming and clear on how she had tortured poor Emilio in the first 12 years of our marriage.”

Twelve years, poor man, what was that about?

“Well she was over-protective, a Cuban mum, and my dad was ill.”

Estefan’s father had developed MS after being exposed to Agent Orange (a herbicide the US military used to destroy ground cover used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops) in Vietnam and Gloria senior, to the family aka “Big Gloria”, had taken over the breadwinner role. With young Gloria studying psychology and French at university her mother wasn’t keen on anything that distracted her.

Emilio and Gloria Estefan arrive at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in Miami in 2001. Picture: Scott Gries/ImageDirect

Emilio and Gloria Estefan arrive at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in Miami in 2001. Picture: Scott Gries/ImageDirect

“She said ‘this musician dude, he’s diverting her from her studies’,” says Estefan, “And it’s one in a million that makes it in the music business so she didn’t want me to get sidetracked.”

If she didn’t like the idea of Gloria singing for a living, she was even less keen when Estefan came home and told her she’d been asked to join the CIA.

“While I was a student I was working at the airport in immigration as an interpreter and the undercover CIA and FBI agents got to know me and asked if I was interested. Of course I was super interested, but my mother had the biggest conniption known to mankind. She guilted me by saying ‘how could you do this to me? I already lost your dad and now you’re telling me you’re going into this dangerous line of work. How am I ever going to be able to sleep again?’ Oh my god, she went to town. So I thought she had been tortured enough. And I loved psychology and the band.

“But I freak my family out saying you really don’t know if I actually joined, do you? This would be the perfect cover, right?”

Gloria and Emilio married in 1978, but it was a dozen years later when Estefan’s mother finally warmed to Emilio after the band’s tour bus crashed and she was seriously injured, breaking her back.

“My husband, me, my son, we were all there. As soon as I saw that my son was OK I didn’t care about anything else. My mother thought Emilio would leave me because she didn’t think a man would stick around, but when she saw how incredibly beautifully he took care of me, she was blown away. So that was the end of that situation,” she says and laughs.

Performing in Los Angeles in 2017. Picture: Maury Phillips/Getty Images for BET

Performing in Los Angeles in 2017. Picture: Maury Phillips/Getty Images for BET

While Estefan was sure Emilio would stick by her, she feared she may never be able to walk again.

“I kept telling myself you’re gonna get through this. I felt people’s prayers around me like a physical energy, and I channelled it in and had very high hopes and good feelings. I’ve always been a positive person. I always like to look forward not back, so I tried to keep that very much alive during that very dark time.”

Estefan did walk again and when she did, wrote Coming Out of The Dark, an anthem of survival.

“A lot of different organisations use the song, for free, because it came through me as a very big thank you to the fans that got me through such a difficult moment in my life. And I will be forever grateful to them.”

Born Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo García in Havana in 1957, she grew up singing from an early age. However, the first song she remembers singing at two and a half years old didn’t go down so well with her grandmother.

“It was the Cuban Revolutionary Anthem and I was hearing it in the streets. My father was imprisoned as a political prisoner. She pulled me up and said, ‘you can’t sing that!’

Estefan’s father Jose was a motorcycle police officer who was imprisoned on the night Castro took over in January 1959.

“He was at the presidential palace because he was a motorcycle police officer, chosen because he was very moral to be escort to the First Lady. He came home and told my mom, ‘we’re in trouble. The president just left the country.’ Also his father was a commander in the army, and anybody who had anything to do with Batista or the government was jailed. When they let him go he got us out of Cuba to the US, then did secret training, didn’t even tell my mom, and went back at the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was captured and in jail for two more years. When he got out, the US army said anyone who did English could join as an officer, so he did.”

Vietnam followed, and exposure to Agent Orange and after developing MS, he died in 1980.

“I felt so bad for my dad. He really sacrificed his life for his ideals and that doesn’t always pay you back well,” she says.

When her mother fell ill Estefan took time out to nurse her until she died in 2017 and the album she was working on took a back seat. “After she passed I couldn’t emotionally even get to the point where I could sing in the studio for quite a bit.”

Now the album is due out in spring, with a dance track released by the end of the year, and Estefan may be persuaded to tour.

“I told my husband I didn’t work this hard to work this hard!” she laughs. “But I do love communicating with my fans so I might get out there next year. If I can coax my daughter to open the show, we’ll see. Never say never.”

The new album is a re-imagining of all Estefan’s songs had they originated in Brazil rather than Cuba, and there’s a documentary exploring the roots of samba to go along with it.

“Samba is a complicated political musical genre so it was very interesting to explore the different rhythms in Brazil. I re-did my songs and recorded them in Portuguese. I’m really thrilled by how it’s turned out. ”

Estefan feels an obligation to speak up for Hispanic America and in her decades at the top has met seven presidents, as well as two Popes.

She declares her favourite to be Obama, “our first African American president. He also made gay marriage legal and moved us forward and I felt proud of my country that we had gone in a new direction. Of Trump, who she has met many times – Emilio was a judge on many of his Miss Universe contests – she has criticised his restoration of travel restrictions to Cuba.

“I’ve been thrust in this role of someone well known and sometimes you have to stand up and speak your mind. I’ve done it when I’ve felt I needed to and it could make a difference, because silence is a very dangerous thing. But a lot of the time you get used for someone else’s agenda so I pick my battles very carefully. I am a staunch believer in freedom and know every four years it changes in this country. I have never supported or promoted a candidate because people have to make up their own minds.”

Did she vote for Trump?

“I did not. No, I did not.”

She continues: “This is the first time someone outside politics has been thrust in and that comes with difficulties and dangers. But I also know that the will of the people hopefully will be done. At the last election 46 per cent of our electorate didn’t even bother to vote. Hopefully that will be different next time.”

Estefan is also vocal about global warming, blaming it for Hurricane Dorian.

“The storms are coming bigger and fiercer every year. I’ve lived in Miami 60 years and 33 on the water and know how many more high tides we have. We have to find ways to fix what’s happening in our atmosphere.”

As for the future, Estefan dreams of playing in Cuba one day but for the moment it seems unlikely.

“Last time I was there was 1979 but now I think I’m persona non grata. I would probably be a big mouth and get into trouble. I don’t want to stand on a stage and start speaking against the government and cause some kind of craziness then leave. But it would be a beautiful dream to play in Cuba. Will it happen? I’m not sure, but it’s always our hope.”

In the meantime she’s excited about the new album and hopes the musical will have Scottish audiences on their feet.

“It feels like it’s only been a minute; it’s all gone by so fast. We’ve had a really fun life and love each other, and it keeps growing and changing. So life’s still very exciting.”

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-12 October, 0131-529 6000, www.capitaltheatres.com; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 2-7 March 2020, 0844 871 7648, www.atgtickets.com; Aberdeen Performing Arts, 10-14 March 2020, 01224 641122, www.aberdeenperformingarts.com