MIAMI—The 90-mile marker at the edge of Key West points south to Cuba. The number resonates among Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits; noventa stands for separation, for hostilities and suspicions, for yearnings and pain, for hope.
And it’s the title of Gloria Estefan’s first Spanish-language album in seven years, “90 Millas,” released Tuesday. “90 Millas” is the 25th album in the career of Miami’s biggest homegrown superstar, and it signals Estefan’s return to the public eye and ear after a blockbuster show at AmericanAirlines Arena three years ago marked her retirement from tours.
In spite of its name, so resonant for nostalgia-filled Cuban Americans, “90 Millas” is all new material, not Cuban oldies. Still, the album is imbued with Cuban tradition—a who’s who of Cuban musicians backs the singer.
“(Cuban culture) is the only thing we have because we don’t have our country,” Estefan said last month in Key West, where she was taping performances of two of her new songs for Univision’s morning show “Despierta America,” near the 90-mile marker. “We are missing something very important to a human being, and to share that culture is to counteract the political image we have.”
Says her husband and producer, Emilio Estefan: “When I came from Cuba alone in my teens, it was the most depressing phase of my life. Without my parents. Without income. My only release was to grab a guitar, an accordion, percussion.”
In his Crescent Moon studios in Miami, dressed in showbiz black, Emilio still looks like the laid-back “godfather” of Latin music that the media were calling him a decade ago. “I’ve fulfilled all my dreams,” he says.
This new CD seems like a culmination of those dreams. Gloria proves she can move freely between American pop and Latin roots, while Emilio can provide for her a state-of-the-art production with sidemen who are legends in their own right. A long way for a couple, Miami’s most famous, who channeled their young uprooting into a drive to reach the top of the music scene, and who keep returning to their identity as Cuban exiles, 90 symbolic miles from home.
Although the title song of “90 Millas” and “Esperando (Cuando Cuba Sea Libre)”—Waiting (For Cuba to Be Free)—are filled with exile sentiment, Gloria insists that her new release is not a political album. Like most children of Miami exiles, she grew up with an overabundance of politics. “Dad was in Bay of Pigs and was a prisoner in Cuba for two years,” the singer says. But her songs are not barbs aimed at the Castro regime. They are, instead, always reflections of an inner life, which includes the yearning of exiles to somehow make it back home.
Gloria’s 25 albums have sold more than 70 million copies, topped charts and won Grammys. “90 Millas,” which, like the 1993 Grammy-winning “Mi Tierra,” reinterprets typical Cuban genres, is poised to match Gloria’s past achievements.
The first radio release, “No Llores,” is No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin Tropical Airplay charts, after debuting nine weeks ago.
Tony Campos, programming operations manager of Spanish Broadcasting System Radio Miami, has been playing it “four to five times a day and on its way up” on both El Zol, WXDJ-FM (95.7), and Romance, WRMA-FM (106.7), since its June 26 release.
According to Campos, a hip-hop remix of the song featuring local Cuban-American rapper Pitbull gets a lot of requests at El Zol at night, when the programming is aimed at a young demographic. There’s also a reggaeton version with Wisin y Yandel, and a “tropical” version produced by Cuco Pena in Puerto Rico with new vocal tracks by Gloria.
Both Campos and Romance’s director of programming, Gino Reyes, are impressed by the album. The Cuban-American radio pros, who have heard segments of the entire CD, are enthusiastic about the traditional Cuban nature of “90 Millas.”
“We needed something like this to return to the roots of Miami Latin radio,” Campos says.
Says Reyes: “This is the best album in Gloria’s career.”
Two years in the making, “90 Millas"has quality to burn. The greatest living Cuban musicians are featured in it, as Emilio strived for a feeling of old-time authenticity:
Bassist Cachao, who later this month celebrates his 80th anniversary in the music business.
Generoso Jimenez, the famed trombonist from Beny More’s band.
Trumpet player Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, another More veteran, who has had a successful career on the New York Latin scene.
Orestes Vilato, whose timbales pumped Latin beat into the Santana band.
Candido Camero, a master conga player who worked with all the jazz greats.
Saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.
Trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval.
And for good measure, Jose Feliciano, Sheila E. and Carlos Santana.
This Rolls-Royce of Latin music was assembled by Emilio Estefan to showcase his wife. And the producer, whose golden touch has sent Latin artists like Ricky Martin and Shakira across the crossover bridge, added his own touch: a studio-generated backbeat to marry a contemporary groove to the classic sounds made by the musicians.
The resulting sound is “like what Luis Miguel did with traditional boleros,” says El Zol’s Reyes. “It’s reinventing and repopularizing traditional music.”
A quarter-century ago, to be the centerpiece of such an impressive production might have seemed improbable to the dreamy songwriter living in the suburbs, married to a Bacardi sales executive whose night gig was heading a band that played at Cuban wedding receptions.
In the early 1980s, Emilio Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine was not the only Cuban-fusion band in South Florida, nor was Gloria its only woman singer. Carlos Oliva, Willy Chirino and Clouds were working a mix of Cuban beats with American and other international sounds.
Singing with MSM were Gloria’s cousin Mercy Murciano, who died earlier this year, and the future diva, a few pounds rounder and terribly shy.
Then came MSM’s Latin-tinged “Dr. Beat,” topping European dance charts in 1984, and a 1986 reworking of that song, now renamed “Conga,” with different lyrics, heavier Latin percussion and a hot keyboard vamp played by veteran Cuban pianist Paquito Hechevarria. Crossover hit! She slimmed down, bared her midriff a la Madonna and pumped out hit after hit.
The artist, who turned 50 last month, now leaves the booty moves to the Shakiras of this world. But she’s still lean, even if more covered up, as she was at the Univision shoot, in an all-white pantsuit, with colored beads on her wrists.
The Key West performance was only the beginning of the CD’s TV promotion. On Tuesday, she was in New York to appear on “Good Morning America.”
And in that smooth transition from Univision to ABC lies a factor that helped transform a little-known Miami singer-songwriter into an international superstar.
Although she sings in a variety of Cuban genres for “90 Millas,” Gloria wrote only lyrics, not the music, leaving that task to Emilio and his team. The Spanish lyrics allowed her to give free rein to her feelings.
“You can be as romantic and dramatic as you want, while English-language love songs have to be more cerebral,” she says, a note of sarcasm creeping into her tone. “Otherwise, they accuse you of being saccharine.”
The difficult days are far in the past. However, one dream remains, expressed precisely in the title cut—much of it sung in Lucumi, the sacred Yoruba language of Santeria, in duet with La India—and in Esperando.
“I see myself (singing) at the Plaza Civica,” Gloria says, explaining that the name Plaza de la Revolucion was appropriated by the Castro regime, when in fact the Havana plaza had been built by the previous government and designed by even earlier administrations.
“And,” she adds, referring to the homogeneity of the current “spontaneous” demonstrations in the plaza, “everybody wearing whatever the hell they want.”