Gloria Estefan doesn’t look like a revolutionary. But lead a revolution, she did, blazing a trail for a whole new generation of Latin performers to cross over into mainstream American music. Now, nearly two decades after she first congaed her way to stardom, Gloria Estefan is out with a new CD, “Unwrapped.” The video was shot on the peaks of the Andes Mountains — to show she’s still on top. She spoke with NBC’s Matt Lauer.
She is a rock star. Her music was practically the soundtrack of the 80s and 90s. Her 24 CDs have sold more than 70 million copies. She’s performed for the Pope, been praised by presidents and mamboed with muppets. She’s the unofficial mayor of her hometown, Miami, a multi-millionaire business woman, and mother of two. She’s Gloria Estefan, and when “Dateline” met up with her and her husband, Emilio, they were preparing to release her new CD, “Unwrapped.”
Gloria Estefan: “Do you recognize that harmonica?”
Matt Lauer: “That harmonica is one of my favorite harmonicas in the world. That’s Stevie Wonder.”
Estefan: “Oh, yes. Unmistakable. Which is the reason I asked him to be on the album.”
But the musical landscape has changed in the six years since Gloria was last out on a world tour. Today, she is competing in an arena dominated by young stars like Brittney, Justin and Beyonce — rock stars who were barely out of their diapers when Gloria first burst onto the scene
Lauer: “Are you trying to make a record to try and say to fans and music executives, ‘I’m still relevant?’”
Estefan: “I’m saying to the fans, I still have something to say for you. I still have thoughts to share and music to share with you. And I know my fans will get it.”
Overcoming obstacles, proving she still has music worth listening to, is the kind of challenge Gloria has been facing ever since she was a little girl in Castro’s Cuba.
Estefan: “Things started to get really bad and my father. He couldn’t get a job anywhere. They wouldn’t let him do anything. So he took us out.”
The family settled in Miami and began to adapt to an American way of life. But then her father went back, part of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He disappeared in the middle of the night to attack the country he’d once called home.
Estefan: “It was a very secret mission and he left a note saying, ‘I have to go. You know, I can’t tell you what I’m doing.’”
Lauer: “I mean, your father is training to invade his country, working for the CIA, basically.”
Lauer: “And your dad goes back and he gets captured.”
Estefan: “He gets captured.”
Lauer: “By his cousin.”
Estefan: “By his cousin.”
It was mission gone famously wrong, and Gloria’s father was held prisoner in Cuba for two years. After he was released, he became ill with multiple sclerosis and other aliments, and by the time Gloria was just a teenager, he was mentally and physically incapacitated.
Lauer: “How bad did the illness get?”
Estefan: “It got bad. It—”
Lauer: “Do you remember this?”
Estefan: “Yeah. Oh, yes, because I was caring for him. And it was tough. And I would just lock myself up in my room and sing and, you know, tears would come down. And I would allow myself to get all these emotions out because I felt that I had to be really strong for my mom. And music, to me, allowed me that escape.”
Music was her only refuge. It led to an invitation to sing at a wedding, where she would meet her future husband.
Lauer: “You said the first time you laid eyes on Emilio, he was wearing brown shorts and playing the accordion.”
Estefan: [Laughter] “Yes.”
Lauer: “Now, that is not usually the opening line of a romance novel, okay?”
Estefan: “And he was playing “Do the Hustle” on the accordion. Now that was sexy and brave.”
Gloria also took a brave step. The painfully shy college student joined the band and grew into a reluctant rock star.
Lauer: “When the band began to progress, Miami Sound Machine was huge in certain parts of the world.”
Lauer: “South America. You guys would go down there, fill stadiums.”
Estefan: “That’s right.”
Lauer: “But come back to the United States.”
Estefan: “Play a wedding for 200 people.” [Laugher]
Lauer: “And that that had to be bizarre.”
Estefan: “It was bizarre. But it was a very wonderful way to learn about fame.”
And how fickle it can be. Back then record companies said her music wouldn’t sell in America.
Estefan: “You’re too American for the Latins. You’re too Latin for the Americans. I go, that’s who we are. That’s who I am. I’m bicultural.”
Lauer: Well, they were saying, though, at that point there was no middle ground.”
But the 1986 hit, “Conga,” changed all of that. Her music opened the door for many of today’s Latin stars, Ricky Martin, J.Lo, Shakira and others whose top 40 status now threatens to push Gloria aside.
Estefan: “I’ve never seen music as competition, quite honestly, because—”
Lauer: “Never? Come on. This is a business.”
Estefan: I have never, ever followed my chart position. For me, it’s a beautiful thing to see, you know, Latin people succeeding and branching out and doing things like that. I don’t stop buying one record because I don’t like someone else’s.”
Lauer: “But you’re a smart businesswoman and you’ve been doing this a long time. And you know that music companies say, hey, thanks for all the hits over the years, Gloria. And you know the expression, what have you done for me lately?”
It’s been a few years since she had the song all of America had on their lips. The last time she controlled the airwaves was April 2000, standing in front of Elian Gonzales’ house in Little Havana. She was there to try and calm the angry crowds, a request she says was made of her by then Attorney General Janet Reno.
Lauer: “She called you, and said, Gloria, I Need you to help?”
Estefan: “I said, I will do whatever I can to avoid having what we believe is going to happen to this child happen. He doesn’t deserve for anything like that to happen. And I will do anything that I can to prevent that situation from happening.”
Lauer: “Did you say I’ll go down there and diffuse the situation if you guarantee me that this young man’s not going to get snatched in the middle of the night?”
Estefan: “I was assured that it wasn’t going to happen. We all felt duped. And I’m sure things could have been handled in a different way that wouldn’t have been so traumatic for that boy.”
These days, the 46-year-old Gloria is still politically active, but she wants to focus on her primary role, that of a musician. “Wrapped” is the first video off her new CD. It was shot in Machu Pichu.
Estefan: “You look at some of these shots and you go it looks fake, they are so beautiful.”
Lauer: “It really is a beautiful place.”
Estefan: “It is not fake. I was there.”
And the CD has a special gift in it for Gloria’s fans: a behind-the-scenes DVD produced by her 23-year-old son Nayib.
Nayib: “I was like, tell me something about Gloria Estefan and they are like, ‘Is this a joke? She is your mother, right?’”
They watched it together for the first time with us in Miami. He says he wanted to show his mother and family as they really are away from the bright lights.
Estefan: “You really got like a stream of consciousness thing that never happens when you are at a sit down interview. So there was a lot of interesting stuff that he got that I hadn’t...”
Nayib: “In other words, I caught her off guard every time.”
Estefan: “Exactly, exactly.”
Gloria says for all the changes her four decade career has put her through, one thing has never changed: the feeling of excitement she gets when she first hears one of her songs on the radio.
Estefan: “This last week, I kept flipping through the radio stations to try to listen to ‘Wrapped’ for the first time on radio. And when you first hear other people hearing it, you know, it’s still exciting. It’s still a beautiful thing.”