Arts

Gloria Estefan: The Conga is part of me and is forever woven into my life

Is the rhythm gonna get you? You betcha, says Gloria Estefan of the stage show that tells the story of her life. Gail Bell caught up with the Cuban-born Miami music legend as On Your Feet! opens in Belfast

Five-time Grammy-winning Cuban-American singer, dancer and writer Gloria Estefan, whose stage show is in Belfast's Grand Opera House this week
Gail Bell

THE glorious Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia de Estefan – Gloria Estefan to you and me – may now be a grandmother in her 60s, but the rhythm of the Conga still holds sway: over heart, body – and feet.

“Do I still love the Conga? Are you kidding?” she asks, laughing heartily down the line from her home in Miami, Florida. “That dance is part of me and is forever woven into my life. It always gets me up on my feet…”

The Cuban-born creator of the catchy 1985 worldwide chart hit Conga (with American band, Miami Sound Machine), and subsequent multiple hit-maker knows all about getting on her feet again. Survival has been the virtual soundtrack to her life and phenomenal career which has been recreated for the stage in acclaimed autobiographical musical On Your Feet! which opened in Belfast this week.

Direct from London and featuring many of the original West End cast, On Your Feet! is a love story at heart, but it is also a celebration of the Latino-Miami sound Gloria and husband Emilo made their own, as well as the personal and professional struggles encountered along an often precarious, rollercoaster route to super-stardom.

From fleeing Cuba while still a toddler, to convincing sceptical music moguls that Latin music really did have an audience, and then surviving a devastating bus crash – all the major dramatic ingredients were already in the real-life script, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the colourful and ultimately uplifting Estefan story made it to the stage.

And yet, although it was a story Estefan never set out to tell, she says the “bottom line” was a chance to highlight the contribution that immigrants have made to the US, “particularly in this current climate”.

Whether that is a veiled reference to the policies and preferences of Donald Trump, she doesn’t say, but she does allow that prejudice is a “human condition that is never going to end”.

“Yes, On Your Feet! is Emilio’s and my personal love story, but it is also a love story to both our countries and to music,” she says. “The bottom line is we wanted to highlight the contribution that immigrants have made to the US, to this country, and it was particularly important for us to highlight it at this time.

“We don’t like to dwell on the negative, because it is just part of life, but we definitely like to provide balance and put good thoughts out there, out into the world, and show the contributions that have been made.”

After fleeing the Cuban revolution with her family when she was just two-and-a-half, Estefan settled quickly in Miami, studying hard at university and escaping family pressures the way of most teenagers – through music. But she had never been to a musical herself until she saved for her own ticket and was “blown away” by the spectacle and the magic.

“Musicals were an expensive ticket and my mother could never take me to any,” she recalls. “But, the moment I turned 17, I started saving up to buy my own ticket. The first show I saw was in a small repertoire theatre called the Coconut Grove Playhouse, when Equus was playing – and that was the first naked man I saw, as well.

“Theatre performers are definitely the hardest working people I know – you are seeing live acting, singing and dancing which you don’t see in the movies or at concerts. They have stamina like no-one I know. It's incredible, really. “

It was important for Estefan to have a fair degree of control over the script for a musical based on her own life and, after an earlier approach, she didn’t like the way things were going and pulled the plug on the first autobiographical draft which had been set for a show-stopping opening in Las Vegas.

“When you take on something like Broadway, well it’s a very different community to the pop world,” she offers. “ But I think the lines became more blurred during the past decade, probably since Mamma Mia! and the music of Abba which was such a success. Our show was actually the quickest that has ever gone from the writing phase to the stage – it took less than three years and we were thrilled with the result."

There was, however, one tiny hitch – when the director appeared initially reticient about including the bus crash scene. But Estefan was adamant.

The devastating crash of 1990 happened on a snow-covered Pennsylvania Road when the singer was in the middle of world tour, travelling with producer husband, Emilio, and their nine-year-old son Nayib, both of whom suffered extensive injuries. But the singer by far fared the worst, breaking her back and wondering if she would ever walk again.

Gloria Estefan

“Our main concern in the musical was how to portray this moment in a way that was both theatrical and beautiful to a degree, but not graphic or horrendous,” she explains. “There is a fine line, but I think it is important to show the audience that you can come back from very difficult situations – and that is how I approached my career after the crash.

“I didn’t care whether I got back on stage or not, but I cared if I walked – that was my biggest fear. The bus crash was the most dramatic thing that ever happened to me and it happened to me in a very public way because I was at the peak of my career and pretty much world-famous.

“In a way, though, that helped, because of the amount of prayers that came my way. I felt a physical energy around me and I used that in my recuperation. Later, I realised I had the opportunity, from all the letters I was receiving, in which people kindly tried to give me hope and spur me on, that I had an opportunity to show how you really can get back on your feet, no matter what life throws at you.”

Her next big project involves the launch of a new album next year, in which many famous tracks have been reworked with a Brazilian flavour. It will coincide with the televising of a special documentary shot in Brazil and zooming in on the musical influences of the Yoruba tribe of Africa who settled in both her native Cuba and Brazil.

A third children’s book is also set to be published, following two previous best-selling stories about Noelle the bulldog, inspired by a much-loved pet which overcame its own integration struggles when attempting to get its paws under the Estefan family table…

“Life is busy,” enthuses the Grammy award winning mother of a grown-up son and daughter, successful actor (film work includes 1999 American musical drama, Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep), and devoted grandmother to seven-year-old Sasha.

“But life also passes quickly and my hope for Belfast audiences is that they will go home feeling inspired and, if they have given up on something, to feel ready to retake the journey toward their own dreams. You make your own luck and you have to continue with your dreams.”

:: On Your Feet!, the Gloria Estefan story, is running at the Grand Opera House until Saturday (goh.co.uk).

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