Latin

Gloria Estefan On the 'Politicized' Nature of Samba

Gloria Estefan
Formento & Formento

Gloria Estefan

Last year, Gloria Estefan went to Brazil to take care of some unfinished business. Back in 2016, at the urging of Sony Music Latin Iberia chairman Afo Verde, she had embarked on an ambitious journey to rerecord some of her biggest hits with more Brazilian beats incorporated. “I was super excited at the prospect of, ‘What would these songs sound like in these legit rhythms?’ ” says Estefan.

With the repertoire selected and arranged, she had studio sessions booked for 2017, “and then my mom suddenly took ill and passed, and I just couldn’t sing,” says Estefan, 62. “Brazilian rhythms are full of joy, but I was not feeling anything of the sort. It took me a year to get into the studio again.” The result is Brazil305, Estefan’s first studio album since 2013. Although Estefan has sung and performed Brazilian standards since she was a child, here the vibrant arrangements accompany her own hits, from “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” to “Cuts Both Ways.”

In spite of Estefan’s significant loss, as well as a series of delays — the album was first slated for release in 2019, then pushed back again due to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests — she believes the upbeat messaging of Brazil305 will resonate. “I realize everything has an ebb and flow,” she says. “I’m just happy to be still making music and be relevant.”

1000 No. 1s: Gloria Estefan

What’s the biggest lesson you learned while recording Brazil305?

You say “samba,” and I bet you hands-down people think of girls half-naked in feathers in Carnival. Because this is the image we see, and it’s a wonderful one, by the way. Carnival is a very big thing in Latin America. But I learned samba was a sociopolitical movement. After slaves were freed in Brazil in 1888, the government was afraid that they would organize so they outlawed samba instrumentation, thinking this would silence them. Of course, they couldn’t silence it. You can’t silence music.

Do Latin artists have an increased responsibility to speak out against racial injustice?

When I [studied] the Holocaust in college, because I was keenly interested in how these things happen, the primary lesson is silence is a dangerous animal. But now we have the other extreme: Everyone is writing, everyone has an opinion, every bit of hate is out there and gets stirred up. We’re really in a quandary with social media. Politics, I try to stay out of. I always kept politics out of my music because my music was an escape from politics. My dad was a political prisoner in Cuba, and then he went to Vietnam and was part of the war. All these young people were protesting the war, which I also I didn’t believe in it, but my dad was there putting his life on the line. I was in this Catch-22 and my music was my escape.

I have friends, family and fans who think differently from me, but I don’t think if you like my music you should particularly care who I support. As far as social commentary, you hear it in songs like “Oye Mi Canto,” which is an ode to free speech, but I’ve never used my music as a political platform because my music was an escape from politics. I think there’s room for it, but I don’t think anyone should be pressured into it.

What current artists could have a career as long-standing as yours?

Rosalía is fantastic. She’s got the package: She’s young, she’s edgy, the chops on that girl and her cultural significance... her music is super interesting to me.

What have you been listening to?

I listen to Cachao’s original records, P!nk and a lot of Brazilian stuff, like Wilson Simonal. My mother also had [Antônio Carlos] Jobim and Stan Getz albums, which inspired me to have Miami Sound Machine learn these songs when I joined the band. And I have a ’70s playlist with songs like Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” which brings me so many memories: I was driving to my math tutor’s house, I was taking the exam to get into Lourdes High School, and I had the window down when the song came on, and someone was mowing the grass and I was so excited about new beginnings and the future. All that is wrapped in that song.

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020, issue of Billboard.